Lesotho, 31 August 2011: Peer leaders take the initiative on HIV prevention among young people
By Tsitsi Singizi
LERIBE, Lesotho, 31 August 2011 – To a rousing welcome, Limpho Moleleko, 15, takes her place at the centre of the large circle. At just under 150 cm, she is not a tall girl, yet she evidently commands great respect among her peers, who range from 11 to 15 years of age. They listen attentively to what she has to say.
It is this ‘peer appeal’ that may become Lesotho’s latest antidote to an unrelenting HIV/AIDS epidemic. Limpho and an army of trained peer leaders and coaches visit schools in Lesotho’s high-prevalence districts at least twice a week. Through peer talks, sport and games, the visitors offer life skills and vital information to help raise awareness, prevent HIV infection among young people and help them cope with the impact of AIDS in their families.
“Children and young people should grow up with knowledge on HIV/AIDS so that they are protected,” says Limpho. “HIV and AIDS is a huge problem in Lesotho, and people are dying.”
Peer support is vital
HIV has brought unique dangers to Limpho’s generation. In Lesotho, a small mountain kingdom with a population of 2 million, the HIV prevalence rate is 23.6 percent – the third highest in the world – according to UNAIDS. An estimated 63 adults are infected with HIV every day.
Worryingly, statistics show that HIV prevalence rates multiply as adolescents grow into young adults. And comprehensive knowledge of HIV in Lesotho is as low as 39 percent among young women aged 15 to 24, and 29 percent among young men.
The sessions with peer leaders like Limpho are, therefore, a vital supplement for children who receive only one broad-based weekly lesson on life skills in their regular classes. With many parents uncomfortable talking to their children about safe sex, the peer visits provide a crucial window to spread prevention messages to young people.
Intervention yields results
UNICEF is supporting the training of Lesotho’s network of community-based peer leaders and coaches to raise the level of HIV knowledge and reduce the risk of infection. The intervention is targeting schoolchildren in the last three grades of primary school and all high school students.
Kaizer Leleka, a teacher at the Mount Royal School, which Limpho has visited as a peer leader, says this approach is beginning to yield results.
“The young volunteers are peers to the pupils,” she notes. “They are dynamic but, importantly, they easily interact, use peer talk, play and games to share a seemingly heavy message. When you teach pupils in such a way, they easily remember.”
The youth-based programme is reaching young people in the country’s three high-prevalence districts of Maseru, Berea and Leribe. Since it began in 2009, the initiative has reached 60,000 young people.
UNICEF is also reaching young people here with a unique helpline and an innovative cell phone SMS service that sends mass HIV prevention messages. The cell phone service receives at least 16,000 HIV/AIDS-related questions from young people every month.
Need to scale up prevention
Tragically, however, such prevention efforts lack the funding to take them to scale in all of Lesotho’s 10 districts. Despite the commitment shown by Limpho and other peer leaders and coaches, the government must allocate most of its HIV/AIDS resources to treatment and care.
“Through these simple responses, we can help prevent HIV among Lesotho’s adolescents,” says UNICEF Representative in Lesotho Ahmed Magan. “The government is supportive but lacks resource. All we require is international support and resources to scale up and have an opportunity to turn the tide for this generation.”
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