Culture | Art: a cure for the crisis

YAHAnet gets creative in the fight against HIV/AIDS

In recent years, AIDS activists have been faced with yet another in a long sequence of obstacles in their fight against this devastating global epidemic: the rising tide of public apathy. Although HIV/AIDS has become increasingly controlled in the developed world, and antiretroviral drugs have become more accessible in developing nations, the social momentum that once propelled the AIDS crisis to the forefront of public awareness has dwindled. The increasing incidence of “AIDS fatigue” has been detrimental to both funding and awareness efforts.
A 2006 study at a Quebec high-school indicated that students’ knowledge about HIV/AIDS had decreased in the past decade. Even more alarmingly, over 70 per cent of grade eight students believed that there was a cure for AIDS. But this AIDS fatigue is not just afflicting those in the West. A study done at the University at KwaZulu Natal in Durban, South Africa found that most of the students appeared apathetic to campaigns by NGOs aimed at AIDS awareness.
Enter Claudia Mitchell, a professor in McGill’s Department of Education. For the past decade, Mitchell has been studying the relationship between creative arts and HIV/AIDS awareness in young people, primarily in a South African context. In 2006, Mitchell was approached by UNESCO, who asked her to do a study on the online presence of arts-based youth groups. Along with her McGill colleagues Dr. Bronwen Low and Michael Hoechsmann, Mitchell conducted a study to examine the use of artistic methods amongst 300 youth groups from across the globe.
The results of this study revealed the profound potential in using creative projects as tools for educating young people about HIV/AIDS. As Mitchell explained in an interview with The Daily, almost half of all new HIV infections in Africa occur in people under the age of 24, so it is essential that new tactics are developed in order to combat the threat of AIDS fatigue within this high-risk group.
“There’s a lot of work that suggests that, in the past, there have been a lot of things developed by adults for youth and this seems to be almost like the ‘kiss of death’… There was an interesting study done in about 2002 by UNICEF that says that unless young people are involved in developing and having some agency in terms of the programs and materials that are available to them to address HIV/AIDS, the programs are almost surely doomed to failure,” Mitchell elaborated.
In 2007, with the help of funding from UNESCO’s HIV/AIDS division, Mitchell and her team at McGill University partnered with the University of Toronto and the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa to create YAHAnet.
YAHAnet, short for the Youth Arts HIV/AIDS network, is an online educational tool that connects youth groups worldwide in order to initiate the conversation amongst young people about HIV/AIDS. Emphasizing the importance of artistic expression in “getting the word out,” the goal of YAHAnet is to encourage young people to be leaders in the dialogue surrounding the HIV/AIDS crisis.
The site features online galleries that allow youth from around the world to upload and share their creative works, including everything from paintings and poetry to rap videos and graffiti. The site also serves as a social networking tool for users to share ideas in online forums and provides users with a variety of online resources to educate themselves on how to effectively use art-based approaches to further HIV/AIDS advocacy and counter discrimination.
In Mitchell’s view, the type of reflective thinking and critical engagement that the arts encourages provides a platform for young people to get involved and express their views on what can be a difficult issue to discuss. “When you add on this layer of sexuality, [as well as] HIV/AIDS stigma, these are areas that are quite difficult to talk about,” explained Mitchell. “But, somehow, you can talk about these things both indirectly and more explicitly by doing it through fiction or photographic representation and so on. It allows people to put into words things they actually aren’t very comfortable talking about.”
YAHAnet is currently maintained by a team of interns at McGill, led by project co-ordinator John Murray. Emily O’Connor, a U3 International Development Studies student at McGill and a current intern at YAHAnet, said she was inspired to get involved by the creativity-based, youth oriented mandate of the site inspired. “I really liked the mandate of focusing on youth and using creative methods to bring awareness… Especially for young kids. They won’t really listen to a boring speech or something like that – they need to have their hands in a project to engage in it better.”
YAHAnet’s newest project, the “Turn the Tide to Zero” Podcast Contest, challenges young people to create a podcast of up to three minutes based on the theme behind the contest’s title. “Turn the Tide Zero” combines the World AIDS Conference title of “turning the tide together” and the World AIDS Day theme of “zero.” The podcast contest will run until December 2, and is designed to coincide with the 2011 World AIDS Day.
As O’Connor explains, this contest is in keeping with YAHAnet’s goal of providing new, fresh approaches to keeping the HIV/AIDS issue in people’s minds. “YAHAnet is this new thing that’s using these new methods to keep the word out there. For example, if we did another photo contest, its almost like people get desensitized to things like that. They’ve seen that before. Yet if you show it in a new way it almost seems like it’s a new thing” described O’Connor. “The way we are going about it is to keep it current and keep it out there so people are staying aware and spreading the message.”
For Mitchell and her team, YAHAnet opens up a much-needed space for young people to make their voices heard. “Now isn’t the time to be saying ‘We’re adults, we know better.’ Now is the time to be saying ‘What’s needed?’” explains Mitchell. “And what’s needed, I think has been demonstrated in a lot of research, that young people can have a voice, and should have a voice.”