Young people lead the response to HIV and AIDS
Malawian youth have a refreshing way of tackling the challenges of HIV and AIDS. They are more open to new information and possess some rare insights, having witnessed attitudes to the disease evolve from secrecy, dread and stigma to more open discussion about a disease that can now largely be prevented and managed.
“Yesterday, we performed a play about violence against children. In the play we showed how the guardian abuses an orphan,” says 13-year-old Chifuniro Nkhwimba, the elected chairperson of the Kafulu Anti-AIDS Club, a vibrant group of 65 pupils of the Kafulu Primary School in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. Any pupil can join once they are in standard 4.
The theme of the play is an issue that Chifuniro, an orphan himself, feels passionately about. About 550,000 children have lost one or both parents to AIDS; most of them have endured the psychological trauma of caring for and witnessing their loved ones die. Thereafter they have to grapple with the demands of life. Orphans are more likely to be denied their basic human rights and are especially vulnerable to abuse and discrimination.
“My mother was sick and passed away four years ago,” explains Chifuniro. He now lives with his aunt, who also cares for two of his cousins who have also been orphaned and her own two children. “I am very happy with her. She treats us all well,” he adds.
One in 11 pupils at Kafulu Primary School has lost one or both parents. The club is one of many set up around the country, with support from UNICEF, to help pupils make responsible decisions about their lifestyles and health. Guidance is provided by the club patron Foster Phiri, also a teacher at the school. “We encourage the pupils to learn on their own; we don't teach them but just offer advice,” he says.
Club members participate three afternoons each week in popular activities such as peer-to-peer education, sports, talks, campaigns, dance and theatre. During many of these activities they transmit messages on HIV and AIDS and life skills. As well as activities within the school, they also conduct outreach activities, sometimes walking as far as 15km to reach a community. It is not always easy for club members, says Chifuniro. “Some of the pupils mock us and they say the reason that we are in the club is because we are HIV-positive. We try to explain to them the importance of this group. We also see the benefits in the community. Some of the people come back to us and say they have got themselves tested for HIV after hearing our messages.”
Young people, especially girls, are more vulnerable to HIV infection. About 10% of young people aged 15-19 are HIV-positive, and many of them are no longer in school. As well as the school clubs, out-of-school youths are targeted in other ways, through youth clubs and Youth-Friendly Health Services (YFHS), which are clinics providing sexual and reproductive health information and services in an non-judgemental and sensitive manner.
The YFHS centre also provides sports and recreation facilities, and screens films on health issues and hygiene. The TV room is so popular that it is regularly packed with young people, often with no room for sitting or even standing. The centre also has football teams.
Rhoda Chiume and Kondwani Dzumani, both aged 24, are volunteer peer educators with the Kawale Youth Club in Lilongwe. Strategically attached to the YFHS, they conduct community talks to out-of-school youths, encouraging them to use the services of the YFHS. “They are enjoying themselves while learning at the same time,” says Kondwani, who trained as a journalist. “It is especially effective as the youth don't have much to do in the communities.”
Rhoda, who stopped school when her father died, says that girls are especially in need of this support. “Some girls get pregnant and then get thrown out of home, and they can indulge in risky behaviour.”
The work of the anti-AIDS clubs, peer education clubs and the YFHS seem to be paying off. Young people talk more freely about their sexuality and have an opportunity to learn skills for life in a friendly, fun environment.
“Stigma around HIV is not such a problem now amongst the youth, at least in the cities,” says Nyirenda.