Empowering vulnerable youth to prevent HIV
By Alexandra Williams
March 2010, Nkanke Parish, situated on the green, muddy and beautiful hills that surround Lake Kivu in south-west Rwanda, is working for an improved future for young Rwandans seeking to overcome poverty and AIDS.
The parish suffered severe hardship when the 2008 earthquake struck. The church tower collapsed during a morning church service killing several people. Despite this, youth show great commitment to a brighter future especially through one focus group dedicated to informing them about HIV.
This small but powerful youth HIV focus group provides youth with information that will enable them to protect their health. In addition, they are participating constructively in the community by providing love and support to those amongst them living with HIV – and acting as inspirational role models for other youth in the community.
Over a hundred young people, many orphaned or vulnerable, ranging in age from eight to twenty, gather in a small room provided by the local authority for the focus group activities.
Innocent is nineteen years old. He gave up school for five years as his family couldn’t afford the additional costs of school uniform and school materials. He has just returned to secondary school.
Innocent stands up and articulates his views on HIV authoritatively and clearly. “After I tested negative for HIV, I have taken the decision to abstain from sex. I now have the knowledge that if I feel I can no longer do this, I can use condoms and that will keep me and my partner safe from contracting the disease. I am grateful to have this information which protects me and my future partner’s health”.
Daniel, a young man of fifteen, then gets up to express his views: “We all know people in the village affected by HIV. In our HIV focus group we provide support to those living with the disease so they are included in activities and not discriminated against. We advise them not to think that it is the end of life – and tell them that if they go to the health centre they can access medicines which will increase their life. I have seen the suffering of HIV so I will be careful”.
After the meeting, Innocent explains more about the important role of public speaking amongst the youth of the parish. “We are young people and we are growing and we are in this focus group together. If we are ashamed of speaking up, we can’t have open discussions and we will never be in a position to influence anything or our own future. It is important for Rwandan youth to throw away their fear and speak up for a better life.”
The children are mobilized through the church and the health centre. A trainer from Caritas Cyangugu provides instruction.
All the children involved in the focus group have been tested for HIV. In addition children living close to the roads are particularly targeted to deliver messages on HIV prevention.
The HIV focus group is part of a larger children’s association which helps vulnerable children with health insurance, school materials and income generating projects and is supported by a community empowerment grant financed by the Government of Japan through UNICEF. This grant aims to not only rebuild destroyed schools and health centres but empower young people like Innocent to take charge of their lives and build their futures.