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Sex: 'It's not taboo anymore'

Nathalie Heiberg-Harrison
Northern News Services
Published Monday, February 27, 2012

Rates of sexually transmitted infections (STI) in the Tlicho region have dropped dramatically - and not by chance.

NNSL photo/graphic

Nathalie Heiberg-Harrison/NNSL photo Jim Martin, left, and Cecilia Zoe-Martin, researchers with the Tlicho Healing Wind Project, present to a class at the Aurora College learning centre in Inuvik on Feb. 24

Since the Tlicho Healing Wind Project began in 2007, a steering committee of local residents has developed a strategy to identify the root causes of high infection rates and ways to stop them.

Two of the project's lead researchers - Jim Martin and Cecilia Zoe-Martin - have been travelling the territory to explain how the region went from having an STI rate three times the territorial average (261 incidences per 10,000) to one of its lowest.

Martin said they're not trying to preach their method, but make people aware of it.

"We tried to change the language of what people were talking about," he said of their project.

"We had known for years that there were high rates of STIs and we became really concerned with the possibility of HIV and the whole STI situation escalating."

The pair presented their research at Aurora College in Yellowknife on Feb. 20, Fort Smith on Feb. 21 and Inuvik on Feb. 24.

Elders, youth and people who worked in social services, health and education formed the committee, and were trained by nurses to know the short- and long-term effects of various sexually transmitted infections, as well as ways to prevent, diagnose and treat them.

"Once the people were trained, we felt we needed to go out into the communities and do home visits," said Zoe-Martin.

Over the course of three months, more than 1,000 homes were visited in Gameti, Behchoko, Wekweeti, Whati and Yellowknife to conduct surveys. They spoke with children as young as nine and elders as old as 94 about prevention, awareness and education. In 2008 the group won a Premier's Award for its work.

"We talked with the families, went into their homes. We sat at their kitchen tables and we just talked about the issues regarding STIs," said Zoe-Martin.

Almost everyone said they were proud of their Tlicho identity, and most noted their respect for the teachings of their elders."

The group encouraged elders to talk with youth about sexual health, and it started educating students.

"When it comes to education and prevention, a lot of our young people were feeding each other misinformation," Martin said.

Zoe-Martin said there were youth who believed you couldn't get pregnant while infected with an STI, or thought you didn't need to visit the health centre to be treated.

Changing the Tlicho vocabulary on the topic was also an important step. A common translation for sex in the language is "sinful play," Zoe-Martin said, so "sleeping together" or "doing it together" were offered as alternate phrases.

"It's just a different way of saying it. It's not taboo anymore," she said.

The group strengthened community outreach efforts, distributed condoms widely, changed health centre practices and created a Community Action Research Team of Tlicho youth who visited schools and did presentations and workshops on healthy sexuality. It also refocused its efforts on educating high-risk groups.

Zoe-Martin said the key to the group's success was taking it one step at a time, and working peer-to-peer with residents as much as possible.

"When you work with community people, the most important thing is you have to open up to them. You have to work with them and let them know that you really care about your work," she said.

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