“I want all other children born in Liberia- and the world- to lead full lives free of pain and filled with the blossoms of love, like mine,” writes Mahmud Johnson at the blog for the youth-oriented HIV/AIDS group Global 40 Forum. He is an 18-year old former co-host of the Liberian youth radio show, “Let’s Talk About Sex”, which deals with issues relating to the spread of HIV/AIDS and pregnancy prevention.
Liberia is gradually transitioning from the nearly 15 years of intermittent civil war that ended in 2003 and moving towards mainstream development. The barriers that remain are great. Nearly 250,000 people were killed during the war, and several hundred thousand were exiled in neighboring countries or in Europe or the United States.
The effects of war on youth
The effects of the war on children are well documented. When the fighting began, different military groups searched for soldiers in the ranks of children. Perhaps as many as 20,000 children, some as young as 6-years-old, were recruited, often forcibly. “They were forced to kill friends and family members including their parents, rape and be raped, serve as sexual slaves and prostitutes, labor, take drugs, engage in cannibalism, torture and pillage communities,” says the report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia. Women and girls also suffered greatly. Liberia’s TRC received nearly 7,000 reported cases of sexual violence. Girls and women aged 15–19 make a majority of those reported cases.
Despite seven years of peace, bad news can still cascade out of Liberia like a waterfall. Three out of four Liberians live on less than one dollar a day; only half the country's children attend school; Fifty percent of households in the capital Monrovia are classified as food secure. The economic prognosis remains bleak and repatriating young people – some of them former child soldiers – into the economy continues to cause the government problems. This can be especially troubling because half of Liberia’s population is under 20.
Liberia’s youth face many challenges in gaining an education that delivers them the right set of skills and knowledge to become productive in today’s labor market. As a result, the transition from school to work is more often than not unsuccessful and youth end up either unemployed or underemployed in the rural, suburban and urban informal sectors.
Yet, the country and its people are determined to put the past behind them. The country’s economy has been growing and the government is modernizing its infrastructure. Groups like the YMCA have been training ex-combatants for employment or to start their own businesses.
Poverty and tough decisions
However, the continuing economic problems have created a ripple effect in other areas. Poverty has forced many women into making difficult and dangerous decisions regarding their sex life, says Jerry B. Tarbolo Jr, from the Federation of Liberian Youth. He said this combination has helped intensify the HIV/AIDS transmission rate in Liberia’s urban areas. If this continues, the disease will mainly affect the younger generation, he says, which is one of Liberia’s great resources.
The connection between economic survival and sexual violence has a legacy in Liberia. A 2008 UNFPA study of women in Liberia’s Lofa County found that during the war, nine out of ten women had lost their livelihoods, 96 percent had lost shelter and nearly 75 percent had lost a relative. More than half of the women were victims of sexual violence, and of those women, half of them reported providing sex for some form of favors.
Misconceptions of HIV/AIDS
Pauline Wleh, a nurse counselor at a Monrovia-based YMCA Youth Centre, says one thing young Liberians today need is education regarding sexual health. She spoke to a writer for Merlin, an international NGO that builds health services in fragile states.
“Years of conflict here disrupted our formal schooling system and broke up health services so that youths today know very little about HIV and AIDS. Because of the lack of knowledge, there is a lot of stigma and misconceptions surrounding AIDS now. Youths are too scared to talk to their parents and there is a lack of accessible information. But they can discretely drop in on me between basketball games or after a trip to the computer lab to ask questions, access services and get advice.”
She says some changes in attitudes have become apparent.
“In the two years since the centre opened, I have seen thousands of young people but only given 291 HIV tests. Although people are keen to talk to me, they are rarely convinced to take an HIV test because they are scared.”
The majority who opt out of the testing, claim they will ‘come back later,’ or more honestly ‘don’t want to know my status, because I don’t want to worry.’
The fight for awareness
This social avoidance is what programs like “Let’s Talk About Sex” are designed to educate against. The weekly 30-minute show, funded in part by UNFPA, provides listeners with 30 minutes of information and conversation about sex and reproductive health issues, all tailored toward young people. Each program is researched and written by the four young hosts, who control all the programming, including research, writing and performing each episode.
“My work as co-host of the LTAS show gave me a working knowledge on the actual realities faced by my fellow Liberian youth in the fight against HIV,” Mahmud Johnson writes. He says you can’t separate Liberia’s economic problems from issues regarding sexual health.
As the show’s outreach team usually traveled to leeward communities and villages to teach the youth there about HIV, I became aware, first hand, of the economic and traditional issues many people are faced with, and how those issues contribute to the spread of HIV in Liberia. I also became aware of some bizarre myths young people harbor on HIV spread and treatment. A very huge percentage of the youth population in Liberia has practically no knowledge about the transmission and prevention of HIV, and this phenomenon is due in no small part to the country’s spiralling illiteracy rate. Even the youth who go to school have minimal information about HIV, as such reproductive health issues are not taught in Liberian schools. Hence, many myths abound amongst Liberian youth about HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, prominent amongst which is the myth that smoking pot prevents HIV infection. Because of these potentially dangerous myths, the radio show’s team developed a ‘Myths vs. Reality’ segment, in which (in colloquial Liberian language) we addressed several of those myths on a weekly basis.
The show offers a useful medium for young people to learn about the virus. And, of course, talk about sex.
Today, the LTAS radio show is aired all over Liberia, and uses other reinforcement channels such as brochures, dramas, road shows, focus groups discussions, and peer training to spread the message about HIV transmission and pregnancy prevention. The show is so popular that the Liberian populace have even used the show to coin a joke in response to the recent shortage of chicken eggs on the Liberian market: chickens in Liberia now listen to ‘Let’s Talk About Sex!’ and practice safe sex! I am aware of the reality that not every single youth in Liberia will heed the health messages disseminated on the show. But even if one person’s life is changed in the process, that would a phenomenal success for me as a pioneer host on the LTAS show.