In 2001, Bagnomboé Bakiono created the African Network for Youth Health and Development in Burkina Faso (RAJS/BF) to address issues related to HIV/AIDS and to promote sexual health among youth. Today Bagnomboé is developing the network in West Africa and linking it to a larger network in other parts of Africa.
National responses to the HIV/AIDS crisis in various African countries have mostly focused on properly identifying and diagnosing the virus and overcoming cultural misconceptions about the extent of the HIV/AIDS threat. Bagnomboé, however, has taken these efforts a step further, using local youth to promote education that helps diagnose the disease, and more importantly, prevents new infections from occurring altogether. His work is reversing long-standing taboos about youth sexuality and giving more responsibility to the young people most threatened by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In the system he set up, young people are key players in disseminating information and promoting healthy practices through peer education and capacity-building. In doing so, he hopes to further enhance young people’s knowledge of HIV/AIDS and STDs, further their ability to educate their family and peers about reproductive health, and improve their skills needed to respond to these diseases. Bagnomboé is currently organizing a support, evaluation, and development system for young people who want to encourage parents and institutions to learn with them about HIV/AIDS in families and communities. This has enabled young people to take an active part in the design, implementation, management, and evaluation of programs that directly affect them, thus addressing the HIV/ AIDS problem in a way that is both viable and sustainable. The system Bagnomboé created has the potential to transform the lives of young people by promoting education and healthy behaviors. Because of the sweeping nature of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, his program can be applied to other countries in West and Central Africa and thus has the long-term potential to bring forth a widespread change throughout the region.
During the 1980s and 1990s, interventions directed towards young people focused primarily on bringing so-called “experts” and “awareness-raisers” into communities to chastise the youth and label certain behaviors as irresponsible. The discourse resulting from this approach was based on prejudiced assumptions that divided the community between those who held a more modern view of sexual liberation and those who were more traditional or found sexuality to be taboo. This polarizing dichotomy was detrimental to providing solutions because it failed to acknowledge the reality of the local context. The lack of involvement of young people in HIV/AIDS prevention programs has often been explained by low skill and management capabilities as well as a lack of education. Unfortunately, many programs addressing HIV/AIDS and health promotion are designed by experts looking to convince stakeholders to use the word “youth” in policies and programs for the sake of appearances or grant seeking rather than to actually encourage young people’s participation. Youth, however, cannot afford to be neglected. In the general population, people between the ages of 15 and 24 are particularly vulnerable to contracting STDs and HIV/AIDS. According to recent statistics, this population tends to become sexually active at a young age with about 21 percent of girls and 13 percent of boys having sex before the age of fifteen, and many participating in inter-generational and/or paid sex. In addition, the youth of Burkina Faso tend to find themselves in particularly precarious socioeconomic conditions with young people comprising about 94 percent of the urban unemployed population and 25 percent of the overall unemployed. Youth also suffer disproportionately from limited access to information and awareness of preventative practices. The failure of current programs addressing HIV/AIDS among youth is what inspired Bagnomboé to take a different approach.
Bagnomboé’s solution is to establish provincial frameworks that provide support to organizations implementing programs for youth by youth. After analyzing messages directed at young people, Bagnomboé and his colleagues advocated a reorganization of the target. By taking into account sexual experience and information needs, they focused on establishing friendship circles among young people of similar age groups. Through Bagnomboé’s youth club implementation strategy, they form groups to promote peer education and local communication. Initially, four categories were established by the network’s associations: Junior Clubs for 10 to14-year-olds; Cadet Clubs for those 15 to 19; Senior Clubs for 20 to 24; and Young Adult Clubs for individuals 25 to 30 years of age. Further, after successfully carrying out this project for two years, RAJS/BF has developed a strategy to reach the very young, ages five to nine years, with its “Window of Hope” Clubs, all with the intention of making the dream of an AIDS-free generation a reality.To take into account the influence of families in young people’s health behaviors, the organization has also developed parent-child communication programs with clubs sponsored by a male or female adult “Friends of Youth”. This strategy, coupled with that of social mobilization, allows for a large membership of young adolescents, but also positively influences how clubs are perceived by parents: As suitable frameworks for expression and positive training directed toward youth. In the seven years since its inception, the network has expanded from forty associations to over 350, and into forty-two of Burkina Faso’s forty-five provinces.
Bagnomboé was born into a family of farmers who lived in poverty. After primary school—during which he experienced a great deal of hardship—he was sent far from his family to a boarding school in Bobo Dioulasso, the economic capital of Burkina Faso. There, after his first year in junior high school, all public boarding schools were closed due to political upheaval, and Bagnomboé had to find a tutor to continue his studies. After several unfortunate experiences with landlords, he was forced to go out on his own.In his teenage years, Bagnomboé unexpectedly became a father. During this time, he also found himself obligated to care for the child of a friend that had recently passed away. His personal experiences were deeply moving, and as he learned more of the tragedy of young people lacking information on sex-related issues, he decided to take action to educate peers in situations similar to his own and his friends. Currently, Bagnomboé strives to deconstruct the taboo around sexuality and reproductive health. His success can be attributed greatly to his strength of character and ability to convince other young people to join in and work with him to improve their collective condition. Bagnomboé is recognized in Burkina Faso as a strong leader among young people just as his organization is renowned nationwide as a place for young people to take important issues into their own hands.