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In Malawi, young people play role in achieving Millennium Development Goal on HIV/AIDS

© Photo courtesy of Sisters to Sisters initiative/Patricia Sangaya
'Sisters to Sisters' peer educator Patricia Wisikesi demonstrates for a group of girls how to use a female condom using a model.

NEW YORK, USA, 22 September 2010 – Combating HIV/AIDS and other diseases is the sixth United Nations Millennium Development Goal, and promoting gender equality and girls’ empowerment is the third MDG target.  Internationally, girls and young women are especially vulnerable to HIV infection, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Worldwide, more than 60 per cent of all young people living with HIV are young women.

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Providing good-quality basic education and skills-based prevention education is fundamental to reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS, particularly in girls. In Malawi, a community-supported programme called ‘Sisters to Sisters’ is performing the essential work of empowering girls with knowledge on sexual and reproductive health, including HIV and AIDS.

The goal is to enable young girls to make informed choices to protect themselves from HIV, sexually transmitted infections, or unwanted pregnancy.

Teen peer educators

In Malawi, it is somewhat common for school-aged girls have relationships with older men who buy them gifts or pay their expenses in exchange for sex. Many times these girls are uninformed about the consequences of these relationships, which can increase their risk for contracting HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, as well as unwanted pregnancy.

© UNICEF Malawi/2010/Chinula
Sibongile Nkosi is a peer educator with the 'Sisters to Sisters' initiative in Malawi. She speaks to younger girls about minimizing their risks of HIV infection and the importance of staying in school.

As part of a girls empowerment program on sexual and reproductive health and HIV prevention, however, hundreds of young girls are now helping to educate their peers about the dangers of having these so-called ‘sugar daddies’ or ‘uncles.’ Peer educator Sibongile Nkosi, 21, and 16-year-old program participant Doreen Chatsika recently spoke with UNICEF radio about the Sisters to Sisters initiative.

The Sisters to Sisters programme is currently being piloted in several schools in central Malawi, targeting some 41,000 secondary school girls since the programme began last year. Programme leaders hope to expand the initiative in the coming years to cover more of the country and eventually reach about half a million girls.

For participants like 16-year-old Doreen Chatsika, the program helped dispel some of the misconceptions they had held about HIV.

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“Before I was thinking that HIV was transmitted by sharing the same room,” recalls Doreen. “Now I’ve learned that HIV can be transmitted by sexual intercourse and blood transmission.”

Social pressure

Doreen said the Sisters program made her think about the reasons why many of her peers end up with older men as their boyfriends.  She said peer pressure from friends and family is a major contributor.

© UNICEF Malawi/2010/Chinula
Doreen Chatsika, 16, is a participant in the 'Sisters to Sisters' initiative, which helps mentor young Malawian girls on sexual and reproductive health as well as HIV prevention.

This is especially a factor when the family does not have resources to pay expenses like school fees for the girl, Doreen said. While she said that she is fortunate to have parents that are supportive of her decision not to have a relationship with an older man, many do not.

“They know the consequences of having a boyfriend or sugar daddy while I’m still at school,” said Doreen, referring to her parents. “And they know the importance of me finishing my school.”

Peer educator Ms. Nkosi says that many parents even encourage relationships with older men or sugar daddies because they can provide material items and financial help to their children – those that they could not, themselves, afford.  Ms. Nkosi trains young girls on how they can overcome peer pressure and stay on track to achieving their goals in life.  She encourages young girls to stay in school and avoid the pressure to have an older boyfriend who provides gifts in exchange for sex.

Focus on girls’ futures

Ms. Nkosi said that parents should focus on their child’s future and recognize the consequences of unhealthy relationships on the education and health of girls. Girls who end up pregnant as a result of their sexual relationships may be dis-owned by their parents for bringing disgrace to the family.

“Once you’re pregnant here in Malawi, you are kicked out of school,” said Ms. Nkosi. Many other girls in relationships with older men end up dropping out of school, as well.

Worldwide, the vast majority of HIV infections still occur in sub-Saharan Africa. This region accounts for more than 80 per cent of young people 15-24 years old who are living with HIV. In sub-Saharan Africa, young women make up nearly 70 per cent of all young people living with HIV.   




Peer educator Sibongile Nkosi talks about reaching vulnerable girls with HIV prevention information in Malawi.
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Participant Doreen Chatsika talks about what she learned in the Sisters to Sisters initiative.
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