At Youth Zone, the youngsters of Cebu don't just make friends, they also get empowered. Located in the busy Colonnade Mall in downtown Cebu, where many young people hang out, Youth Zone looks like a posh Internet cafe with its vibrant colors. But there is more to it. It offers young people a place to share their emotional, sexual and health problems and find ways to cope with them. It informs, educates and provides services on adolescent reproductive health, family planning, and HIV/AIDS prevention.
"I really like it here because I meet a lot of different people," says Marie Sagritalo, 18. Like many other teenagers, she initially visited Youth Zone to make friends but later got involved in their programs. The Youth Zone is run by Remedios Aids Foundation, which focuses on reproductive health.
The centre offers Internet services, film shows and board games along with counselling, peer facilitator workshops and art therapy. It also has a library and offers referral services on different issues. The young members also use the place for group meetings and discussions.
Launched in 2001 in Cebu, the centre has members ranging from age 10-24 years. It has a non-judgmental and non-discriminatory attitude towards visitors. Liz Ragas, Youth Zone Cebu program coordinator, says unplanned teenage pregnancies, followed by drug abuse and relationship conflicts, are common problems among youth. Some of these problems are interrelated and the youngsters are also counselled about them.
A study conducted between 2000-2002, by the University of San Carlos, entitled "Promoting Young People's Reproductive Health", ranked the prevailing sexual and reproductive health problems among the youth as follows: drug abuse (85 per cent), early marriage (57.5 per cent), unwanted pregnancies (51.5 per cent), Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) and HIV/AIDS (18.18 per cent), and abortions (12.12 per cent).
The study also pointed out that the youngsters were very ignorant about reproductive health and safe sex and were often exposed to different health risks that they rarely treated.
Each day, Youth Zone gets about 85 visitors. Last year, it responded to 18 per cent cases of teenage pregnancies and three per cent STD cases. According to Dr Corazon Raymundo, project coordinator of the 2002 Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality Study, University of the Philippines Population Institute, about 23 per cent of young people, aged 15-24 years, had pre-marital sex experiences. This behavior is prevalent more among boys (31.1) than girls (15.4).
However, while more than 40 per cent youth think that it is all right for young men to engage in pre-marital sex, only 22 per cent approved of girls having sex before marriage. The study also pointed out that due to unsafe sex practices, 36 per cent girls (15-24 years) end up pregnant. This is not surprising, as the study says 40 per cent of the first sexual encounters and 70 per cent of second encounters are without any contraception. Young girls often don't seek help, fearing that they would be blamed or ostracized.
The same ignorance also makes the teenagers vulnerable to STD and AIDS. Though most have heard of AIDS (94 per cent), some (23 per cent) still think it is curable.
But once they arrive at Youth Zone, the youngsters are more aware and feel less anxious about themselves. Here, each one undergoes a thorough health check-up conducted by the three part-time doctors at the centre.
Ragas says that though young people need professional help, they don't trust anyone. At Youth Zone, they are able to open up and share their problems in complete confidence. The centre also helps them to make the right choices in the future.
Renato Ulan, 25, a peer educator in the centre, says, "I've realized the need to give accurate information to young people who are still exploring. There are many misconceptions about sex. That's why they need information to protect themselves."