Peer educators – the voice of youth

Four young people from marginalised communities in the suburbs of Sao Paulo Brazil, have just done something amazing - not just for themselves but for their families, communities and friends. Camila, Daniela, Jose and Thiago have completed their eight months of training and have ‘graduated’ as fully qualified peer-educators in the Brazil Young Health Programme.

To hear them speak now, you would never know that when they first heard about it, they didn’t really jump at the opportunity. ‘I learned about the Young Health Programme when they came to talk about it in our classroom, but at first I wasn’t very interested’ said Thiago. Jose was quite happy staying at home watching films. Camila was curious about the opportunity to ‘learn many things’ but at that point didn’t have any great urge to save the world – or even her own part of it.

It was the opportunity to do something different that really sparked their interest and led them to apply. Jose visited AstraZeneca’s offices in the city and created materials about cancer and diabetes and brought them back to school to use in YHP workshops. For Daniela it was the street theatre and working together to distribute stickers and talk about Non-Communicable Diseases and risk behaviours; and for Thiago it was producing podcasts ‘we talk about one risk behaviour at a time, topic by topic, so it’s easier to pass information on to people’.

As each of them found their way into peer education so peer education worked its way into them – changing their outlooks and firing up their interests. One of the biggest changes was in the way that they saw themselves - and how others saw them too. As her understanding grew Camila began to pay more attention ‘to my attitudes, to my behaviour, to the things I eat, eating healthier things’. For Jose it was self-confidence ‘I used to feel embarrassed when I spoke to an audience, and now things are much easier’, and the workshops also encouraged Thiago to be much more outgoing and confident: ‘If I saw someone smoking, I’d tell them that it isn’t good for their health’.

Whilst their role was mainly about helping their schoolmates to change their behaviours, perhaps the first people to be convinced by their new focus were their families. Jose persuaded his mother to change her eating habits ‘for the better’ and Thiago soon had his mother going to the gym and for walks.  But the purpose of all of their training was to encourage their peers - people of a similar age – to change too. Could this be possible?

Camila’s encouragement found her friends ‘eating less junk food and having a healthier diet’ and Jose set about convincing his friends to stop smoking. This was a pretty tough target but he is making steady progress, ’they used to smoke constantly - now they smoke, but not so often.’ As a peer educator Thiago works through social media as much as face to face ‘which I think is one of the most important parts, because people are constantly connected’. All four know that breaking unhealthy habits and ways of living take time and effort and they are in it for the longer term.

The eight months of peer education have been a personal journey for each of these young people to a brighter future. Jose plans to go to university to study drama, Thiago is working to become an airline pilot and travel the world and Camila has the very clear and practical aim to take part in an international exchange programme.

For these young people, nervous and excited just before their graduation, becoming peer-educators has started to transform their lives and the lives of those around them. The last word should perhaps go to Thiago – ‘I want to thank AstraZeneca and also Plan International for bringing this project to us, because the lack of information is a problem in our society, especially for us, who live in the outskirts of the city, and this changes our coexistence, our behaviours and our lives’.