Many young people in Liberia subscribe to some of the more dangerous myths about HIV and AIDS. Some believe it comes from the neighboring country of Cote D'Ivoire; others say it is spread through dog bites.
Victoria Nayou, a 24-year-old mother of two, thought she could contract the virus from eating contaminated food or shaking hands with someone who is HIV-positive.
"Now I know that this is not true," says Victoria, "and that you can only get HIV from having unprotected sex with someone who is HIV-positive or sharing blood."
As legions of soccer fans around the globe tune into the 2006 World Cup, Liberian youth such as Victoria are stepping onto the soccer field to learn about HIV/AIDS. Mercy Corps is using the drawing power of the world's most popular sport to reach young people with important messages about Africa's most threatening disease.
Mercy Corps' "YES to Soccer" program is based on a curriculum designed by Grassroot Soccer that combines young people's passion for the sport with drills, role plays and discussions about HIV/AIDS. Currently, 3,000 Liberians between the ages of 16 and 30 participate in the program.
"The idea behind ‘YES to Soccer' is to use role models who young people trust - like soccer players and coaches - to confirm what they're hearing about AIDS and integrate it into their behavior," says Jessica Quarles, Mercy Corps HIV/AIDS program officer. "Grassroot Soccer has combined social theory, public-health methodologies, rigorous evaluation and a huge dose of passion. It knows that behavior change takes skills and practice, and its curriculum reflects this."
Testing the new approach
The spread of AIDS threatens to derail efforts to improve food security, fight poverty and stimulate economic growth in developing countries where Mercy Corps works. Mercy Corps' HIV/AIDS education programs currently reach 265,000 people worldwide.
In Liberia, a tiny West African country ravaged by civil war and poverty, young people are largely uninformed about HIV/AIDS. Victoria is one of 32 participants in Tojilallah village, located in a rugged, remote county near the border of Cote d'Ivoire. Most of the residents live in mud homes roofed with palm fronds or corrugated zinc and survive on food rations from the United Nations World Food Program.
Because of the program, Victoria now knows that one of best ways to protect herself from HIV is to use a condom. On a recent trip to Cote d'Ivoire, where she sought refuge during part of Liberia's 14-year civil war, she purchased hundreds of condoms to distribute in her community.
Mercy Corps is organizing soccer tournaments to reinforce the HIV information that participants have learned and to provide communities an opportunity to share the skills they have gained. Mercy Corps pays for transportation to the tournaments, which include men's and women's games as well as theatrical dramas about HIV/AIDS.
Nike, which sends free footwear and apparel to Mercy Corps youth programs in places like Central Asia and the Middle East, is outfitting all 3,000 participants with jerseys, shorts and shoes, as well as providing 400 soccer balls.
Leveraging soccer's drawing power
Africa isn't the only place where Mercy Corps leverages the popularity of the world's favorite sport to build stronger communities. In Central Asia's Ferghana Valley, a poor and densely populated region that spans the borders of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, Mercy Corps uses soccer to defuse ethnic tensions.
In Kyrgyzstan, for instance, a former Soviet republic with a volatile mix of poverty and ethnic tensions, the agency sponsored three soccer leagues involving more than 350 youth of different ethnicities. Mercy Corps also trained two dozen coaches to incorporate tolerance, sportsmanship and healthy lifestyles into practices and games.
Mercy Corps plans to expand its partnerships with Grassroot Soccer and Nike in Africa and Central Asia as it seeks to reach more young people with hopeful messages about HIV/AIDS.