Youth advocates make the difference in Zimbabwe’s COVID hotspots
“As someone who knows her HIV status, YALEP boosted my confidence and I am now able to speak in front of people and assist my peers."
Twenty-three-year-old Sandra Chikutura from Masvingo was born with HIV and she has sleepless nights thinking about her peers in a similar condition who do not have adequate family support structures to handle their status.
Sandra considers herself lucky because she is one of the youths in the province, who was part of the Youth Leadership Programme (YALEP) run by the Youth Advocates Zimbabwe (YAZ) which equipped her with information to deal with a problem she had grappled with from a very young age.
“As someone who knows her HIV status, YALEP boosted my confidence and I am now able to speak in front of people and assist my peers who are also living with HIV,” Sandra said.
“In my interactions with young people, I have discovered that most of them are afraid to disclose their HIV status to their partners because of stigma and I always advise them that by not disclosing their status they could be creating more problems for themselves in the future. YAZ is a youth-led organisation working to advance the rights of young people and amplify their voices when it matters, and through the support from UNICEF Zimbabwe with funding from USAID Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance COVID 19 Emergency (USAID BHA COVID 19) and European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Operations (ECHO), it has recruited youth advocates that act as ambassadors in their communities.
The youth advocates like Sandra help identify factors that enable or affect the demand and uptake of integrated COVID-19, sexual reproductive health (SRH), and substance abuse prevention and services.
They also enhance youth engagement in the COVID-19 and SRH responses by creating safe spaces for adolescents and young people to access accurate and confidential information and referrals on SRH as well as COVID-19 through various platforms.
“Some young people that are born with the virus go through a lot of discrimination and they end up giving up on life and some have a lot of bitterness, especially against their parents for infecting them with the virus.
“As a youth advocate, I would like them to know that they can still lead normal lives by taking their medication and avoiding risky sexual behaviour.
“This is what my work as a youth advocate revolves around. Giving hope to those that have given up on life.”
Yolanda Mazurura (23), a youth advocate from Masvingo’s Rujeko high-density suburb, said on a daily basis she comes face to face with the struggles of young people brought about by the outbreak of COVID-19 such as drug addiction, mental health problems, child marriages, and sexual abuse.
“My work as a youth advocate mainly revolves around monitoring young people living with HIV, checking their viral loads, and making follow-ups on whether the services they get from service providers such as clinics are up to scratch,” Yolanda said.
“Young people living with HIV are facing a lot of stigma in the communities and most of them do not have family support systems as they are orphans and that is where we come in as youth advocates.”
She said YALEP helped build her confidence to help her peers deal with the challenges that arose during COVID-19 lockdowns such as teenage pregnancies, drug abuse and mental health problems, among others.
“YALEP helped me a lot because after the training I was able to get vaccinated against COVID-19,” Yolanda said.
“There are a lot of problems that arose during the lockdowns and many families did not have enough to eat, forcing some young girls to think of getting married while others are now into drugs.
“As youth advocates we have set up support groups on various issues affecting young people.
“The discussions are very helpful because a lot of young people that we engage end up joining empowerment programmes to escape the scourge of drug abuse and some young mothers want to go back to school.”
Ronald Maipe, a youth advocate from Mucheke Township, said the COVID-19 induced lockdowns had seen an upsurge in cases of substance abuse and commercial sex workers, which he blamed on lack of jobs and peer pressure.
Ronald (24) sad he was trying with other youth advocates to ensure that youths trapped in drug abuse and commercial sex work were rehabilitated and to stop more young people falling into the same trap.
“The outbreak of COVID saw a rise in the number of commercial sex work in this neighbourhood because people had lost their jobs,” he said.
“There is also a challenge of drugs and child marriages.
“As youth advocates we move around places where youths spend their time such as bars where we try to persuade them to stay away from drugs and abstain from sex.
“For those that are already indulging in sexual activities we educate them on how they can do it safely.
“I handle young people that find themselves in difficult situations such as being infected with HIV or falling pregnant with empathy because of the training I got through YALEP.”
Christina Chamboko, the health promotions officer in the Ministry of Health and Child Care in Masvingo, said YAZ’s interventions had a huge impact in the city and urged the organisation to replicate them in rural parts of the province.
“We are far ahead compared to where we were before the YAZ programmes were introduced here,” Christina said.
“We had a lot of school dropouts here due to a number of reasons and with the training that young people get they now want to go back to school or to start income generating projects.”
Her sentiments were echoed by Lovemore Mudumi, a special education needs officer at the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education in Masvingo, who said interventions by YAZ had helped address sexual reproductive health rights issues in the COVID-19 era.
Lovemore said YAZ had innovative ways of communicating with young people and this helped the ministry to reach out to learners that were negatively impacted by the COVID-19 lockdowns.
“YAZ has done really well in its efforts to ensure that COVID-19 messages reach our learners,” he said. “They are also effectively dealing with the scourge of drug abuse in schools and mental health issues.”
YAZ youth advocates are found in 12 COVID-19 hotspot districts of Bulawayo, Masvingo, Midlands, Matabeleland South, Manicaland, and Mashonaland East and have reached more than 50,000 adolescents and young people with integrated COVID 19.