Citizen. Speak. Amplify.

In the fight against HIV, voices of the youth have power

Knowing that AIDS is the biggest killer of adolescents Sub-Saharan Africa, it’s frightening to think of a world where young people are not encouraged to discuss sex and HIV. SIYANDA MOHUTSIWA attended a recent UNICEF conference for adolescents in Mbabane, Swaziland, and was impressed by the courage of young people who speak up on issues that their elders have shied away from for too long.

“What is sex?”

Hands shot up like fingers trying to tickle the sky. And I could hear the “me! me! me!” of excited youngsters who were sure they knew the answer.

“Sex is when a man puts his penis in a woman’s vagina,” said a slightly shy 11-year-old boy. Hands shot up again in anticipation of the next question. The facilitators asked more and more intimate questions and the children blurted textbook answers with precision, some quite unexpected, “people have sex in church camps!”

UNICEF had invited me to attend a forum for adolescents and young people affected by HIV in Mbabane, Swaziland, and it was kind of funny at first. Until it was not.

As a math student, I wanted to shake UNICEF and ask them why these kids weren’t being encouraged to get fired up about science, chemistry or mechanics. I thought the whole thing slightly repulsive, if I’m being all the way honest. But that, I would learn, was part of the problem.

Since 2000, the number of adolescent deaths from AIDS has tripled. Despite huge strides in the prevention and treatment of HIV, the only demographic that has not improved is adolescents. In fact, UNICEF reports that, every hour, 26 new infections occur among 15- to 19-year-olds.

Truthfully, painfully, we cannot allow feelings to cloud our judgment. The real injustice is not that these children hear more about sex than they do about mathematics or science. The great cosmic injustice is that they live in a world where they really can’t afford not to. These children were born in an era where their communities were under the very real threat of being wiped out by HIV and AIDS. And now they face a new danger.

“A lot of the kids who were born with HIV don’t know it.”

“What?”

This is me, in the UNICEF Botswana office in the days before my trip to Swaziland, with Tudu, a UNICEF communications officer. Despite living here, in a country with one of the world’s highest HIV rates and one which has sought to counter that by force-feeding my generation with as many health facts as possible, I had never given a thought to the children who were born with HIV. So much of my education on this virus had revolved around prevention. And that’s part of how we got here.

“A lot of them only find out when they voluntarily get tested in secondary school. Even when they’ve been taking medication their whole lives.”

“But how is that possible?” I ask, between nervous gulps of water.

“Their parents just don’t tell them. Some say they thought they were taking medication for TB or some other thing.”

“That’s weird.”

And, also, kind of dangerous. AIDS is the biggest killer of adolescents in Sub-Saharan Africa, and yet many of them lack comprehensive knowledge of HIV, including how they can protect themselves.

My generation was the first to learn about HIV/AIDS early in school – in standard one in my case. But thinking about it now, I don’t feel like we really got it.

“That’s why it’s so important to conduct this in siSwati,” says one of the facilitators in Swaziland.

“You can ask the kids in English and they will give you textbook answers, but when you ask the same question in siSwati they can’t really explain it.”

The HIV and AIDS Indaba could have been any old conference with a lot of talk and decisions made on behalf of people who were not there. But when I walked into the venue, the sight I beheld took my breath away. Sitting nearly chest-to-chest with ministers and NGO heads was a swathe of schoolchildren, uniforms neatly ironed and faces fixed in serious expressions. They made up about half the audience. But they weren’t there to sit and listen. They were there to speak.

“We need better condoms. We need condoms that don’t smell bad and are easy to find without us being judged by older people.”

Her face remained calm in the face of an audience of her elders that had gone silent and tense.

I let out a breath — had I been holding it all along? — and the students in the audience rose to her rescue with an enthusiastic applause.

In Swazi culture, this is simply not done. Students – children — do not stand before adults and speak with such audacity, particularly not in the presence of royalty (the first princess was in the room). I will forever be moved by their courage.

But it was not just the volley of complaints: “Young girls are chased by old men and many of them have no choice but to submit.” “How can we get guidance when our parents are never around and our teachers don’t teach life skills?”.

It was what came after.

“I am happy to hear the students telling us the truth about their needs,” said a representative of the Ministry of Health. “We are coming up with an age-appropriate, evidence-based, culturally sensitive program for teaching life-skills in all schools in Swaziland.”

I wanted this to be what they remembered forever: that they inhabited a world where their views mattered.

“We are also putting health workers in sensitivity training so they can better handle concerns that young people raise about privacy and fears of judgment by nurses.”

And so followed suit the policymakers from several ministries that ran the cogs of this small kingdom. Labour, education, youth, sports and culture – all responded to the many concerns raised.

Later, one of the schoolboys came up to me. We were both exhausted after a day of listening keenly, and his brief stardom, which had fixed a permanent grin to his face was wearing off. We shook hands and I told him he’d done an excellent job.

“I’m not too sure,” he said.

“You did something really cool today. You should be proud of yourself!” He smiled again, the ghost of stardom re-emerging to lift his chest with pride.

It remains to be seen what will come of an event like this. But I am certain that more of these need to happen. In the fight against any one of the scourges that threatens to rip the future out of young Africans’ hands, we must accept the power of the young person’s voice. Policymakers all over Africa will benefit from repeating this forum. And it will, I think, make all the difference.

Siyanda Mohutsiwa is a Botswana-based writer obsessed with Africa and the internet, and was recently named a UNICEF special reporter on HIV and AIDS among adolescents. In her spare time, she studies mathematics at the University of Botswana. Follow her ungovernable tweets at @siyandawrites.

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