Chijioke Obinna Okonkwo is a youth leader in Nigeria on a quest to reach out to young people in an effort to save lives. Chijioke is guided by the belief that “good information is highly effective in changing young people’s lives if properly acted upon”.
At the end of 2011, he enrolled in TakingITGlobal’s Sprout e-course and founded Youth Can – a peer education program to arm fellow youth with information to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Young people between the ages of 18 to 25 have the highest burden of HIV in the country of Nigeria. Some of the factors attributed to the spread among young people include a willingness to experiment with unprotected sex, emotional immaturity, and social taboo or outright denial related to HIV. HIV and AIDS care and treatment services in Nigeria have been focused mainly on facility-based models which are not youth friendly.
Leveraging Chijioke’s education in sexual and reproductive health, applied microbiology and HIV/AIDS, he worked with a team to prepare a practical and comprehensive curriculum for Youth Can. The program delivered to 18 to 25 year olds focuses on life-building skills such as goal-setting, interpersonal communication and decision-making in addition to the subject matter specific topics related to HIV prevention through abstinence, condom use and screening.
In November 2012, Youth Can conducted a three-day training of 14 HIV Prevention Peer Facilitators (12 in-school youth and 2 out-of-school youth). Following the well-attended training, facilitators were assessed through comparative pre and post-training tests. Based on their scores, these youth increased their learning and understanding of the issue of HIV by over 35%.
Ekweonu Perpetua, an 18-year-old student and Youth Can peer educator, knows that the test scores tell only a small part of the story. She knows that the transformative nature of the right kind of knowledge can lead to true empowerment. For Ekweonu, the impact of Youth Can is that: “As a young girl, I am now empowered to help my peers to be free from this infection.” Along with 13 other peer educators, Ekweonu and the Youth Can team delivered outreach and training to a total of 535 youth in the first three months following the project launch. Of these young people, 60% were girls and 7% included out-of-school youth.
Chijioke says this about the role of the Pearson Fellowship in making his dream happen: “The skill building provided through [the Fellowship] was the game changer for the Youth Can project becoming a reality. Program development, management and coordination was simplified in such a manner that my confidence grew so much that I can convince the Nigerian National Assembly of the importance of [this] project...”