Advocacy through sports: Stopping the spread of HIV among young people
As a youngster growing up in Lomé, Togo, my passion and love for football were fuelled by my desire to play with my friends, to compete, win and, of course, sometimes lose. Today, my profession gives me the chance to see people of varied backgrounds, religions and faiths come together to watch the exciting game of football. In doing so, they celebrate diversity from all corners of the earth. Sports and games possess the unique virtue of cutting across cultural and generational gaps. While young people may at times find it hard to communicate with adults, engaging in sports allows families, friends and, perhaps, even adversaries a window to put aside differences and cheer in unison.
I am grateful to have a career in football and to participate in top-level clubs. Throughout the time
that I have played, however, I have carried with me the awareness that my homeland – while culturally rich and vibrant – was suffering from the effects of poverty, ill health and lack of access to education. I witnessed first-hand the effects of HIV on Africa. I noticed the singular hardships that confront young people living with HIV, especially those who are marginalized, who live a life of poverty and despair, and those most at risk: adolescent girls. In sub-Saharan Africa, girls account for an overwhelming majority of all infections in young people. Their voices often go unheard. These same young people face stigma, discrimination and exclusion.
Motivated by what I had seen, I teamed up with UNAIDS in 2008 to spread global awareness about
HIV – particularly to young people, as the majority of our football fans are young. I seized the opportunity to promote a cause in need of special attention. Thanks to UNAIDS, I have the chance to pass on a life-saving message to young people who may not have access to the information I have regarding HIV. We must all do our part.
HIV stands out, not only because of the number of people living with the virus, but because we know
how to prevent it. Of the 2.5 million HIV-positive children under age 15 in the world, more than 90 per cent are in sub-Saharan Africa. At last count, there were 120,000 people living with HIV in Togo in a population of just 6.6 million. Many of them were infected at a young age. Only 1 in 7 young women in Togo understands the ways in which HIV can be transmitted.
During my first year as a Goodwill Ambassador, I learned that giving clear and sound information on
HIV prevention, treatment, care and support is one thing – but changing peoples’ attitudes, beliefs and behaviour towards those who are infected or seen as vulnerable to HIV infection is a much bigger challenge. Many who are living with HIV still encounter discrimination or are reluctant to approach counseling centres, accept advice on preventing mother-to-child transmission or seek antiretroviral treatment for fear of social alienation. In sub-Saharan Africa, 12 million children have been orphaned by AIDS. In Togo alone, 88,000 have lost one or both parents to the epidemic, and 94 per cent of those do not receive any medical, educational or psychological support.
If young people are to have a chance at living up to their full potential, they urgently need to know how to protect themselves from HIV infection and where to find counselling and treatment. This is our only chance to halt the spread of HIV. I hope to inspire adolescents around the world to speak out on the issues surrounding HIV with the same ardour that I and other advocates do.
With the increasing global popularity of football, sports play an important role as a vehicle for change. HIV can be prevented if each person plays his or her part in stopping its spread. I have faced hardships in life, like everyone else, but I have also been fortunate to have enjoyed success on the football pitch. I see the power of young people every time I play. There are more young people on this planet now than ever before. Their energy and dynamism present a tremendous opportunity for change. We owe it to them to overcome HIV, so that future young people can live in an HIV-free world.
Emmanuel Adebayor is a Togolese professional football player titled African Footballer of the Year in 2008. He was named Goodwill Ambassador for the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in 2009 and continues to use his popularity to raise awareness about the epidemic globally, particularly the importance of preventing new infections among young people.