Guatemala: Indigenous Theater Is HIV Prevention Tool

Theater is emerging as a prevention resource in Guatemala's indigenous communities, which are at high risk for HIV due to poverty, lack of education, and taboos about sexuality.

"We put on a show with clowns, because young people fall asleep at PowerPoint presentations," explained Walter Contreras of Ak' Tenamit, a nongovernmental HIV prevention group founded 10 years ago.

Ak' Tenamit -- "New Village" in Q'eqchi, a Mayan language, operates in 29 communities in the costal Caribbean municipality of Livingston, which has a high proportion of Maya Indian people. "We perform theater skits in the Q'eqchi language and in Spanish, to reach out to local communities," said Contreras. "The key message to get across to young people is how to use a condom properly, and to make sure they have an HIV test when they turn 18."

Stephane Gue works for Proyecto Payaso ("The Clown Project"), which conducts HIV-related workshops and theater performances in Guatemala. He said theater is a particularly effective prevention approach in rural areas, as it communicates information on sensitive topics in a playful, recreational way. "Neither the health centers nor the schools know how to tackle the issues, or have great difficulty in doing so," he noted.

"There is a taboo against using condoms, and gathering a group together to talk about sexual matters is frowned on, especially in the Mayan villages, where this is not accepted because of the conservative nature of their traditions," noted Vinicio Pérez of the National Center for Epidemiology.

Data from the Ministry of Public Health and Social Assistance show that between 2004 and 2010, more than 3,500 HIV cases were diagnosed among native Guatemalans.