ISMAILIA: When Shadia El Shewy was a young girl, the bulk of her questions about sex weren’t addressed in the classroom or in her home – they were answered in the playground.
Predictably, that early education was flawed.
“I got most of the information from my peers, but it was false information, says El Shewy, now a 22-year old medical student. For example, she was told that sex was only pleasurable for men, and that during intercourse, a woman’s role was to lie back and let the man have his way with her.
“They said that the man was in control, and women shouldn’t have any emotion, she recalls.
While El Shewy has since learned otherwise, misinformation about sex – and in particular, HIV/AIDS – continues to proliferate in the nation’s playgrounds, sports clubs and school hallways.
Most kids remain in the dark about AIDS and many don’t know how the disease is spread.
That’s why El Shewy and other young leaders are using a new approach to educate kids about sex and HIV/AIDS: peer to peer education. The concept is simple: teach these kids the basics and they in turn will tell their friends, who will in turn continue to spread the information and create a ripple effect through clubs, schools and teen hangouts.
The new approach was given a boost at a massive youth-led conference last weekend in this canal-side city, where close to 400 young people from 11 governorates gathered for a three-day crash course in the science of sex.
“It requires nothing but communication skills and simple but correct facts, says Ahmed Kassem, who helps run the Youth Peer Network, one of five groups which headed up the education seminars.
Similar “word of mouth or “guerilla campaigns are used by marketing companies to launch new products, and so far, the approach seems to be very effective in the education realm, too.
“Here in Egypt, sex is taboo, says Wael Sultan, a 22-year-old student from Mansoura who was heading up one of the seminar groups last weekend.
He adds that a young person with armed with the right facts can be more a more effective educator than a doctor, teacher or sex specialist.
“When a doctor talks, he will talk in a scientific way – there will be a barrier. Doctors don’t get into the social aspects, he says.
But when Sultan speaks, kids listen.
“I use their language. I know what’s on their minds because they are my friends. I know how to reach them, he says.
The youth camp received funding from organizations like the United Nations, the American government’s USaids program and the Canadian International Development Agency.
As an added bonus, the weekend camps also featured an appearance by Egyptian stars Amr Waked and Khaled Abol Nega.
The organizers also invited Muslim and Christian leaders to take part in some of the talks.
Heba Aboul Feda, an 18-year-old from Mansoura dressed in a long skirt, a suede jacket and a hijab, says that getting the facts will go a long way in her community.
“I learned how to protect myself against AIDS, she says, admitting she was “ignorant before she got here.
“The biggest problem is that the people don’t even want to hear about AIDS, she says. “They have no way of getting the information.
She also says that when she goes home, she’s going to share her new knowledge with her friends, her classmates in university and her family, who she says are “afraid to talk about sex and HIV/AIDS candidly.
While rates of HIV/AIDS remain low in Egypt (about 5,000 according to the UN), the government is using this campaign as a pre-emptive strike against the disease, which is ballooning in developing nations like India and China.
“Every country has an AIDS program and Egypt is smart in that it recognizes that now is the time to influence behavior while the numbers are still low, before it’s too late, says Diana Boeke, a communications consultant with the USAID-funded Communication for Healthy Living Project.
“Hepatitis C is on the rise and the spread of HIV is always related to Hepatitis C, she adds.
While organizers say that more frequent meetings are imperative for the campaigns to be truly effective, the optimism at the weekend’s close was tangible, says Kassem.
“In Egypt, youth participation is growing, they are talking to each other in civil society. We’re getting stronger and we’re going to do something really good.