The Red Cross in the former Soviet state of Moldova is helping teenagers in the tiny, isolated country to come to terms with new realities.
Since independence, the country of four million people has seen ongoing frozen conflict and spiralling unemployment which has led to the emigration of hundreds of thousands of its citizens. Poverty and social insecurity has fostered a dramatic increase in injecting drug use and other risky behaviour, which, in turn, have led to an increase in the numbers of HIV positive people.
Peer to peer education, including role play, is one of the ways in which the Red Cross is getting safe behaviour and anti-stigma messages across to the nation's youth.
In one such session Vaselyna and Igor play a couple that has been together for seven months. Igor thinks it is the right time to explore the sexual side of their relationship, but he doesn't want to use condoms.
"I love you Vaselyna and you should trust me", he asks, humbly. "You know I have no infections and there is no need to use a condom". Vaselyna finds herself with an all-too-common dilemma: she is aware of the consequences of unsafe sex behaviour and thus feels reluctant to have sex with Igor without a condom - but she is afraid to lose her boyfriend.
The HIV/AIDS epidemic has developed into a serious public health problem for in Moldova, Europe's poorest country. It is having a greater and greater affect on the lives of young
Moldovans and, as in most countries, the epidemic is driven by behaviour that exposes individuals to the risk of infection.
According to official data, the country's overall HIV prevalence rate continues to increase; however, the proportion of injecting drug users among newly detected HIV cases has decreased.
"What we see now in Moldova and the data on sexual transmitted diseases (STDs) indicate that there is an increasing trend towards sexual transmission of HIV, because of a high degree of promiscuity and unsafe sexual behaviour", says Ekaterina Rotaru, head of department at the state AIDS centre, who also facilitates peer-to-peer workshops. "Therefore, educating young people in safe behaviour is of special concern for Moldovan Red Cross".
Since June 2004 Red Cross volunteers have conducted three peer education sessions among the youth population in the city of Bendery where some 50 school children were trained.
Students are literally competing with each other to be selected for the workshops.
"Unfortunately, we have a limited number of places and can invite only two or three pupils out of the 50 or 60 interested from each school. And it is so difficult to turn down those who are not selected as many of them get offended", says Maria Tsurkan, Chairlady of the Red Cross branch in Bendery.
Elizaveta Tereschenko described herself as "one of the lucky ones. A lot of my school friends wanted to become trainers, but only three pupils from my school were selected", she says.
At 14, Elizaveta is one of the youngest peer educators, but she has built up a big bank of experience and is highly thought of by her peers.
"What is really important is that I conduct peer education sessions in my school for my friends. The first sessions were very difficult because some of the older pupils didn't take me seriously. Many of them thought that they knew enough about HIV/AIDS and the consequences of unsafe behaviour", she recalls.
"But then, after the first 20 minutes of our session I noticed that their attitude towards me changed for the better and many of them were surprised how much information about HIV/AIDS such a young girl as I could have. They'd never heard much of it before.", she adds.
The campaign has already yielded positive results. "When we started our project in Bendery, the city had one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in Moldova. But today we are proud to say that this is a city with one of the lowest rates of HIV/AIDS in the country, partly thanks to our work with youth" reports Maria Tsurkan,
"But I think that the most important result is that pupils realise that HIV positive people are just like us, and not social outcasts".
And that is not the only success achieved by Moldovan Red Cross over the last six moths.
Local authorities are actively supporting its peer-to-peer education programme, thanks to the creation of an Interdepartmental Council which includes representatives from cultural, health, information and internal affairs departments.
"The experience of Moldovan Red Cross is unique for our region", says Warwick Inder, the Head of Minsk Delegation of the International Federation , "It's good to see that donors funds are used well and the neighbouring Red Cross Societies in Ukraine and Belarus are planning to come here and learn from what Moldovan Red Cross has achieved".
In the future, through the introduction of mobile teams of peer educators, Moldovan Red Cross plans to expand its peer education work to rural areas where children have less access to information about HIV/AIDS issues.
"We cannot influence the source of infection, but we should do our best to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS through our information campaigns, through the dissemination of information about healthy lifestyles and, of course, through the work of our trainers. Only by doing that we will ensure the health of our future generations", concludes Maria Tsurkan.