By Onnik Krikorian /UNICEF Armenia

Any visitor to School No. 43 in the Armenian capital might easily mistake Veronica Seropyan for a teacher. Yet, standing in front of thirteen pupils aged between fourteen and sixteen, there is something different about her class. The ubiquitous red ribbons that adorn the children’s t-shirts perhaps provide the best clue.

Seropyan isn’t a teacher but a member of the AIDS Prevention, Education and Care (APEC) NGO that has charged itself with the task of training 1,400 schoolchildren as peer educators by May 2005. Through interactive teaching methods, discussion and games, the children learn about the danger of infection from HIV / AIDS.

“We talk about the history of the disease,” says Seropyan, “and how it is spread, what effect it has on the immune system as well as the biological and psychological development of teenagers. Later, they will pass on that knowledge by talking with their friends and classmates.”

Fifteen year old Ophelia says she even tells her parents and other family members.

In fact, peer education has been found to be an effective method in reaching a specific target group that might otherwise not listen to someone older or from a different social background. In the summer, 120 of the most promising educators will attend a summer camp to expand their knowledge still further.

And there is a reason why APEC has chosen to target this particular age group. Although Armenia is considered a country with a low prevalence of HIV / AIDS, the number of those infected is growing. Last December, the United Nations warned that the republic faces a "potential disaster" if nothing is done to stop its spread.

Moreover, while only 56 of 304 officially registered cases of HIV / AIDS in Armenia were aged less than 24, surveys of young people, and especially students, indicated that although there is a high level of understanding regarding the importance of practicing safer sex, behavior can be just the opposite.

© UNICEF/SWZK00305/ Krikorian
Young peer educators at a training session at Secondary School No.43 in Yerevan

Survey reveals problems

Because of this, UNICEF supported a pilot project implemented by APEC in Armenia’s southern-most Syunik region in 2001 to raise awareness of the danger of HIV/AIDS and drug abuse. Round-table discussions were held with school principals and representatives of the local authorities. It was also decided to conduct a survey of youth in the region. The results were alarming.

While respondents knew of the dangers of HIV/AIDS, very few knew about preventive measures. Instead, most teenagers received their information from unreliable sources such as films or from friends who lacked a comprehensive understanding of the disease. The survey was repeated in 2003 and APEC decided to start training peer educators.

Although the initial reason for engaging in AIDS education was to prevent new infections from occurring, there was also the need to reduce the stigma and discrimination that is often associated to any mention of the disease. In many countries, talk of HIV can often encourage resentment and hatred from those who consider themselves to be least at risk.

"However, the reality is that HIV / AIDS affects everyone," says Emil Sahakyan, UNICEF’s Information and Communication Officer. "But, because many people think that it will not affect them, they don’t take precautions. At the same time, informing people in the wrong way creates fear, stigma and discrimination."

As a result, on World AIDS day in 2003, UNICEF funded APEC’s campaign to raise awareness and promote tolerance through the mass media. Approximately 80,000 leaflets, 2,500 calendars and 4,500 red ribbons were distributed. A one-minute video clip was also shown on sixteen television stations in the republic.

In 2004, UNICEF also funded a summer school organized by APEC to increase the capacity and knowledge of existing peer educators. In total, 96 students including 60 from secondary schools in the Armenian capital were involved. Participants received up-to-date information, booklets and leaflets and were awarded with certificates at the end of six training sessions.

In 2005, UNICEF will also support the establishment of youth friendly health services throughout Armenia.

Meanwhile, because APEC’s work has been so successful and is constantly being expanded, the NGO has now decided to concentrate solely on education and prevention activities among young people and drug users. An offshoot of the NGO, Real World – Real People, will concern itself with people living with HIV/AIDS.

"I can’t say that Armenia is very open in discussing such issues," says Artak Mushegyan, President of the NGO, "but the situation is changing. We need time to understand how important it is to speak about this problem and that is why we also stress the importance of educating parents and teachers as well."

For more information:
Emil Sahakyan, Communication Officer, UNICEF Armenia:

Tel: (+ 374 10) 523 546,