Sarah West is media manager at the International HIV/AIDS Alliance. The opinions expressed are her own.
In sub-Saharan Africa, half of HIV transmission occurs among 15-24 year olds.
In Zambia, one of the countries most affected by HIV in the region, adolescent girls are at particular risk of acquiring the virus. HIV prevalence for girls under the age of 19 years is four times that of boys of the same age.
To address this, work is being done in Chipata in eastern Zambia with teenage girls and boys to increase awareness of HIV and sexual and reproductive health, reaching not just young people themselves but parents, teachers, traditional leaders and other community members.
Young people get a lot of their information from Alangizi (traditional leaders). Like many other Alangizi, Matilda used to provide information on traditional sexual practices which were likely to increase the chances of passing on HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STIs).
Since receiving training Matilda says: “The big difference is that I now know that I have the right to teach children good health, how to prevent getting STIs and HIV. I have that freedom to talk to them now.”
The training Matilda received was provided by Young, Happy, Healthy and Safe (HAPPY), a community based organisation and partner of Alliance Zambia.
Programme Director, Zikhalo Phiri, says the most rewarding aspect of the job is: “How it changes me. We change ourselves first and then you can talk to others. I have changed my mind around issues of wife’s rights and rights for children. We really need to be the role model ourselves. Chipata is small and people know you. If we are not leading by example then it becomes difficult for us to lead.”
24 year old, Kumwenda Yotam, is a peer educator.
“I decided to become a peer educator because I saw a lot of my friends facing problems like STIs and HIV. As young people we are doing the same things so it’s easy for them to interact with me.
The community is confident in me. [At first] some young people were worried after they talked to me that I would disclose information but now they are much more confident to talk to me.”
Esta Mzalezulu is Sister in Charge at the Manukwa Health Centre, in the Chipata District, which has 8,500 patients within its catchment area.
“Since training the Alangizi and the peer educators my work has been much easier” said Esta. “In the past people were fearful to come to ask for condoms from me. Now it is easier for them to go to their peers or the Alangizi. They then refer the client to me. It has been very helpful training.”
In five schools around Chipata teachers and students are both learning about young people’s sexual and reproductive health rights, and community outreach is even encouraging young mothers back to school.
Tuma Mufuzi, Deputy Head at Chankhanga Basic School, Chipata, explains: “Parents have also been sensitised which helps. When girls get pregnant they don’t keep them at home like they used to, now they come back to school.”
Here, Maureen Mwanza teaches a class of 53 14 year olds about their rights.
The message is getting through, but HAPPY will need to continue to build on its successes to put the learning into practice. As one of the girls in the classroom says:
“Maybe you are in a village and you are very poor and your parents are not educated. You can maybe sleep with boys to find money but you have a right to life and to education.”