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Peer Education: Negotiating Healthy Sex in a Social Setting

on Sep 26, 2012 | Sexual Health HIV | 0 comments

Becca ZodIn the world of sex ed, peer education is on the rise.  Especially in terms of HIV, peer education has been used in various groups around the world as a public health intervention.  While it is receiving more attention in the US, I saw this in action at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, in an area where HIV rates are up to 15%.

Students there volunteer as peer educators, making rounds to the residence halls as well as to community events and a nearby prison. During these events they play a warm-up game and start with a presentation or video. Then they begin asking questions of the participants. At first, the room is quiet. People are shy. However, a few brave souls speak up, and before you know it everyone in the room is on the edge of his or her seat waiting to talk, eager to share opinions about sexual health practices today at their university and in their communities. And when it starts rolling, topics get juicy.

Presentations are set up to include general STI information, HIV prevention and gender-based violence, but the discussions end up encompassing much more.  Participants engage in lively discussions about love, college relationships, fear and HIV, reasons why they continue to have unprotected sex, consent, socioeconomic context, and the relation between their own culture and sex.  Peer educators are trained to stir discussion and help direct the flow of ideas, but the discussion usually takes off among participants.

The importance of this discussion is to get people talking about their own sexual behaviors and those of their peers in ways that they can address problems and find ways to consider changing them. Social theorists suggest that when people can negotiate their own frameworks, they are more likely to be able to change their behaviors. In an environment where peer pressure greatly influences lifestyle choices, peer education discussions may be able to harness a level of creativity and credibility that can promote healthy choices.

Furthermore, the twenty-some peer educators at the university in South Africa are respected by many of their peers, which may help heighten their impact. When I was on campus it seemed that many students wanted to be peer educators because they thought that they looked cool wearing the t-shirts and being part of campus events.  The group itself has a tight-knit core of students who are all good friends and devote much of their time to peer education.

When I talked to many of the peer educators, they expressed belief that their participation in the program had a significant positive impact on their personal lives, both in their own sexual health behaviors and in other life skills as well. While everyone had had some variation of sexual health education in middle school and high school, they realized that what they thought they knew about sexual health was in reality barely anything. After becoming a peer educator, the information was much more ingrained. Instead of knowing they had to use condoms but neglecting the issue, they now understood the severity of the issue. Many students had not known any HIV positive people before or had only heard rumors.  However after joining with the group, they met HIV positive individuals and were able to help counsel those fellow students who came to them with their issues.  In other ways, the peer educators built presentation skills, improved their English skills (which in South African society are not always taught in schools but associated with higher education), and encouraged students to go back to their communities and make a difference there.  Many of the peer educators had newfound plans to start up peer education programs in their hometowns.

It may be useful to consider these impacts, both for the participants of peer education and for the peer educators themselves, in future sexual health interventions. While this is one example of a program at a South African university, there have been programs springing up in high schools and universities globally. Researchers in social theory are struggling to find a way to systematically evaluate the impacts of such a program, however in the larger future of sex education, it’s an interesting strategy to consider.

--Becca Zod



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