Victoria Nayou is a 24-year-old mother of two who lives in one of the most remote regions of Liberia, a tiny West African country struggling to emerge from the long shadows of conflict and poverty.
Most of the 100,000 residents of heavily forested Grand Gedeh County, situated near the Cote d'Ivoire border, live in mud homes roofed with palm fronds or corrugated zinc and survive on food rations from the UN's World Food Program. Even with that assistance, a recent survey revealed that two out of every five children showed signs of stunted growth. The humanitarian agency Medicines Sans Frontieres runs the county's lone hospital, and lists malaria, measles and complications during childbirth among its "persistent health problems."
What's more, in a part of the world ravaged by HIV/AIDS, most of Grand Gedeh's young people know dangerously little about how to protect themselves from the continent's most threatening disease.
Most have at least heard of HIV/AIDS — from friends or family, radio messages, hand-painted roadside billboards or health professionals. But in the absence of consistent and widespread information, one message seems to overwhelms all the rest: AIDS kills. It's a message that promotes stigma, fear and discrimination — and holds back efforts to prevent the disease from spreading.
Here and in other isolated parts of Africa, Mercy Corps is using the drawing power of the world's most popular sport to reach young people with important messages about HIV/AIDS. It's one of several agency initiatives to halt the spread of the virus based on the well-recognized ABCs of prevention — Abstain, Be faithful, Condomize. The agency's HIV/AIDS programs current reach at-risk youth, migrant workers and indigenous families in ten countries: China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Nepal, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Liberia, Niger, Guatemala and Honduras.
In Liberia, Victoria recently joined nearly three dozen other local youth in learning how to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS through the "YES to Soccer" program, a joint effort by Mercy Corps, Nike and the U.S. nonprofit Grassroot Soccer. It is based on an innovative curriculum designed by Grassroot Soccer that combines young people's passion for the sport with participatory games, role-plays and discussions about HIV/AIDS. Over the past year, 1,500 Liberians between the ages of 16 and 30 participated.
"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.
The program included soccer tournaments designed to reinforce the HIV information participants learned and to provide communities an opportunity to share the skills they have gained. The weekend tourneys featured men's and women's games as well as theatrical dramas.
"Before participating in YES to Soccer I thought I could get HIV from eating food or shaking hands with an HIV-positive person" explains Victoria. "Now I know that this is not true, and that you can only get HIV from having unprotected sex with someone who is HIV-positive or sharing blood."
A similar soccer program is being rolled out in southern Sudan, which has one of Africa's lowest HIV rates but is at a critical stage in its history. As the region reaps the peace dividends from the end of Sudan's long-running civil war, thousands of refugees are streaming back into one of the world's least-developed places.
Because of the program, Victoria now knows that she has many options to protect herself from HIV. She can abstain, be faithful to an uninfected partner, or use a condom. The program also gave her the skills to navigate those choices. On a recent trip to Cote d'Ivoire, where her family sought refuge during part of Liberia's 14-year civil war, Victoria purchased hundreds of condoms to distribute in her community. It's especially important for sexually active partners to use them, she knows, because she and her neighbors don't have access to HIV testing.
In fact, access to proven prevention methods for people at high risk of HIV/AIDS is appallingly low around the globe. Among high-risk populations, according to UNAIDS, the consolidated effort by UN agencies to combat HIV/AIDS, less than 1 percent of adults have access to HIV testing, 9 percent have access to treatments that prevent mother-to-child transmission and 9 percent have access to condoms. Only 11 percent of gay men and 16 percent of commercial sex workers have access to programs aimed at encouraging safe sex practices.
The absence of these programs translates into new cases of HIV and AIDS. According to an analysis by UNAIDS and the World Health Organization, expanded access to proven prevention strategies could avert nearly half of the 62 million new HIV infections projected to occur between 2005 and 2015.
"Twenty-five years after its discovery, HIV/AIDS is still outpacing us," says Quarles. "And we won't catch up unless we make significant progress on prevention."