|Members of the UNICEF-supported Young People We Care programme danced during a 2006 meeting at a secondary school in eastern Zimbabwe.|
By Tsitsi Singizi
Here is one in a series of stories on successful initiatives to promote healthy lives, provide quality education, combat HIV and AIDS, and protect children against abuse, exploitation and violence – all part of a special edition of ‘Progress for Children’, UNICEF’s flagship publication on advances towards the Millennium Development Goals. The report was launched on 10 December.
ALASKA, Zimbabwe, 28 December 2007 – A bright voice and the sound of drums cut through the low hum of the old mill. Suddenly, the sleepy mining town of Alaska, a few hours north of Zimbabwe’s capital, transforms into a carnival of song and dance.
Dancing in pairs, a dozen young men and women respond in chorus to the solo singer, their feet raising a cloud of dust as they form a ring around the drummers. It’s a vigorous dance, traditionally performed to mobilize troops for war. These days the dancers have a new enemy: AIDS.
“AIDS is here!” the singers call. “It is in my home, neighbourhood and community. Let us fight it with everything we have – our bodies, our values and our minds.” The message is clear and the audience is riveted.
Young people at the forefront
The performers are members of Young People We Care (YPWC), a UNICEF-supported programme that is an integral part of Zimbabwe’s national behaviour-change strategy, which seeks to reduce young people’s vulnerability to HIV infection.
Offering a range of interventions, the group encourages responsible behaviour and HIV prevention among young people through peer education and life-skills training. In turn, the youths provide care and support to the households hardest hit by AIDS in their communities.
“When YPWC started, young people in our community were becoming desperate,” says Agnela Mahomva, a feisty and energetic peer educator. The mine had temporarily shut down, she explains, and young men were turning to alcohol and having many sexual partners.
“Girls were engaging in transactional sex just to make ends meet,” Agnela recalls. “However, YPWC has greatly helped young people discuss and open up to the dangers of risky behaviour, HIV and AIDS. As a result, young people are more careful.”
Changing behaviours, safer lives
And community-led interventions such as YPWC are not limited to Alaska. Against the backdrop of a shrinking economy, rising unemployment, an orphan crisis and a sharply increasing cost of living, Zimbabwean youths are defying bitter odds. Through anti-AIDS clubs and girls’ empowerment movements, they are providing their peers with access to critical information about preventing the spread of HIV.
Interventions such as these are reversing the tide of the pandemic in Zimbabwe. A 2007 United Nations report found that Zimbabwe presents evidence of a strong decline in national HIV prevalence. The decrease appears to be partly associated with behaviour changes, including an increase in condom use among women with non-regular partners and a reduction in sexual activity with multiple partners.
Youth volunteer Trust Ngoni Samatiya, 21, says that being involved with a group like YPWC has made him more aware of the dangers of the disease. “Their messages are real and practical,” he says. “At least they talk about condoms, and when I am with them I do not feel embarrassed discussing these issues.”
“In a community where culture and tradition dominate, open discussion of sex and sexuality is often confined to matrimony,” says UNICEF’s head of HIV programming in Zimbabwe, Nicolette Moodie. “But as Trust points out, positive peer pressure is yielding results, as more young people begin to open up about sex and HIV.”
'Progress for Children: A World Fit For Children Statistical Review'