Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young… (I Tim 4:14)
Those words were ringing through my head as I sat in a circle with a group of young people working for PWRDF partner CoCoSI (Committee Against AIDS) just outside of Santa Marta, El Salvador.
One by one we went around the circle, introducing ourselves, saying what our role was, and how old we were. “I am 24 … 31 … 29 …” As each one of the other young people told their story of working for CoCoSI I was struck by how this group of young people had all seen a need in their community and responded to it, regardless of opposition.
CoCoSI was founded in 1999 by a group of young people, some of whom still work for CoCoSI. They founded the organization to raise awareness of and promote prevention of HIV and AIDS in their community and in the local prisons. Since then, CoCoSi has also begun to work at preventing gender-based violence, particularly towards women, and promoting human rights to those in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) community.
And there was opposition: some of the young adults were as young as 15 when they founded CoCoSI. They faced opposition from those who thought they were too young to do what they were doing. They faced opposition from those who did not think HIV and AIDS should be talked about. They faced opposition from those who said they did not have enough formal education. In some cases, they faced opposition from within their own families and communities.
What was remarkable was that these were young people who should not, by all accounts, have succeeded. Most were born across the border in Honduras, in refugee camps that their parents had escaped to during the long years of the Salvadoran conflict. They had, as teenagers and young adults, returned home and begun to advocate within their community for rights of the marginalized. They also began developing HIV and AIDS education and prevention programs in their region.
Despite, or in spite of all of this, they have succeeded. After spending time with the young staff of CoCoSI, I had the opportunity to sit with two of them as they facilitated a women’s support group in a nearby community. Despite only understanding about half of the Spanish conversation, I could see the joy on the faces of the women in the group. I could see the passion and love for the women and for their job in the presentation of the two young women from CoCoSI. And I heard and understood stories of empowerment and safety echoed around the circle. Indeed, CoCoSI has been recognized internationally for their programs and I am so proud that we at PWRDF partner with them to help see that their incredible work continues.