Interview with UNAIDS Prevention and Vulnerability Advisor
Wednesday 24 March 2004
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SOUTHERN AFRICA: Interview with UNAIDS Prevention and Vulnerability Advisor

©  Lovelife

Young people account for half of all new adult HIV infections

JOHANNESBURG, 18 November (PLUSNEWS) - As a prevention and vulnerability advisor, Aurorita Mendoza is responsible for addressing the prevention needs of some of the population groups hardest-hit by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Young people, who account for half of all new adult infections, were the focus of Mendoza's recent trip to Southern Africa, where she attended a consultative meeting on the Southern African Youth (SAY) on AIDS initiatives. During her visit she spoke to PlusNews about the crippling impact of HIV/AIDS on youth, particularly young girls, and how prevention campaigns such as SAY can make a difference.

QUESTION: We keep hearing about the large numbers of young people who are getting infected, but what is it that makes them so vulnerable to the disease?

ANSWER: The age of adolescence is a very critical age. It's an exciting age and, when we recall our own adolescence, we know that this is a turning point in our lives where there are things that we'd like to learn about; there are dreams we would like to fulfil.

There are many levels of vulnerability: there's the specific physiological vulnerability of young people, but there is also the psychological and emotional angle, which is never really looked at. This is when they are still struggling to find their power, and this struggle is usually exploited. Unless they have the information, support, tools and the skills to be able to turn that power and potential into constructive activities, they will continue to be at risk of HIV infection. So that's really the core of their vulnerability - this delicate time in their lives.

So, for example, take young girls in southern Africa - they are the most at risk because they lack access to information and education. There are many young girls who are out of school for many reasons: they have to work at home, or they have to take care of the sick. These girls carry a lot of the domestic burden. As a result, they don't have the education to protect themselves against HIV/AIDS - we all know that the higher the level of education, the better a person is able to protect herself. Young girls in southern Africa are also the targets of older male partners, and it is because of this that they run the risk of having partners who are HIV-infected. To make matters worse, in situations where the partners are 10 years or more older - and there are countries and settings where that is the case - many of these men would have already been infected. There is also this misperception among many men, and in many societies, that the younger the girl, the less the chance of [her being positive,] which is true. Therefore she becomes a target.

Q: But an emerging trend has been the growing practice of young girls engaging in sexual relations in return for...

A: Economic dependency is a situation that puts anyone at risk, but more especially the girls and young women who are expected to bring home some money, or who are required to pay for their own expenses. It's a foregone conclusion that poverty is a setting that puts people at risk. And so, many girls occasionally use sex as a way of getting resources; a way of paying their education, getting clothes and paying for food. This is not usually done for frivolous things - this is really for basic survival, and that is really pathetic. These girls are the ones who feel the [economic] burden, and feel responsible and, therefore, opt for these alternative sources of income. Now we need to empower them economically - youth campaigns need to not only look at life skills, but also economic options - some income-generating activities they might be able to do in order for them not to opt for sex-work.

Q: Some of the region's youth prevention campaigns have been criticised for failing to reach their intended audience. In South Africa, one example is "loveLife": a controversial HIV/AIDS youth education campaign that has been criticised for its "in your face" and direct style of conveying messages about HIV/AIDS. What do you think is the problem - are they getting the message across?

A: There are many diverse opinions about loveLife. I have seen their product and their output, and we have talked to several South African young men and young women: girls and boys who have been reached by their messages. The reaction of young people does not match the reaction of the adults. The young feel it has opened up channels of communication, and it has lifted the taboos on sexuality, and to them that is valuable. They say it (loveLife) gives them a chance to talk about sex and sexual behaviour, and to make their own choices. So, they have become a little bit more informed.

On the other hand, there is still social stigma on openly discussing sex and we, as adults, feel that by talking about it, we will be encouraging sexual activities. But, in fact, young people have told us that the information they get from messages from loveLife helps them see what the risks and responsibilities are. So, it is difficult to be critical of something that the youth themselves are benefiting from.

Q: What about the UNAIDS-backed Southern African Youth Initiative on AIDS (SAY)?
This is one of the largest-funded youth prevention projects in the world. What makes it different from other campaigns?

A: We have been encouraging them [the eight southern African countries running SAY projects] to find their niche. You've got to find your identity as a player - there are many actors in this HIV/AIDS drama. To us (UNAIDS) there are two differences: the first is that this project is really strongly orientated around gender issues, giving vulnerable populations access to services and information, and empowering young people - that is why we are highlighting them. This meeting has been impressive in that regard - this is one of the first workshops where there is a 50/50 ratio, maybe 60/40, of young people to adults. And that is because we have a vision: that eventually they are going to lead the SAY initiative.

So that's a unique feature of SAY - not looking at young people as helpless and powerless, but trying to make them more visible and equal.

The second difference is that this is part of the UN reform; part of the UN vision for all the agencies to work together to make an impact. We all know that agencies in the UN have different directions, but with SAY we have all come together around one programme, and we are saying the same things and using the same strategies. So, hopefully, the UN's "clout" and our "power" as an institution will help to make things happen.

Q: What are some of the gender issues you are encouraging the SAY projects to look at?

A: Issues around HIV/AIDS are very related to gender. One is lack of power - the people most at risk of HIV/AIDS are people who don't have the power. And this means those who don't have access to information, because power is information and skills. That is a gender issue - equality, having status and having power. The other issue is equity - do we give people opportunities to learn, opportunities to earn, to be responsible? We're trying to make it clear to these (SAY) projects that this is what they should be aiming for. Equity and equality - that's why SAY is so different from other youth interventions. SAY is made up of a combination of information, education and communication, and also skills-building, including economic skills.

Q: What are some of the project highlights?

A: They all have their strengths: for example in Zimbabwe - the strength here is that the political administration is being mobilised. They are setting up a system where people are going to get mobilised from the provincial level down to the district level - and this includes political leaders, which is very important. So, that's going to be a unique contribution that Zimbabwe will be making. And then there's the project in Angola - a post-conflict country where reproductive health services for populations of displaced persons, refugees and those who have fled from conflict, are non-existent. So there are high rates of unplanned pregnancies; unsafe abortions, and the Angola project will help to fill this void for young girls.

Botswana is also outstanding because it has built up partnerships, and it is one of the projects with the most diverse range of partners. Mozambique's project has targeted a province (Zambezia) and they are going to see an impact on a single area, so that's really exciting.

Q: How have these projects addressed the use of condoms? How do you get around the conservative attitudes that still prevail?

A: We're trying to introduce a broader concept of prevention among young people. Instead of the traditional ABC model, we should be looking at DRP: delay, reduce and protect. Condoms should always be part of a more comprehensive HIV protection - it can't be condoms alone ... but it is the only device that prevents HIV transmission, and the only device that saves lives right now. Although it is an essential part of HIV prevention, it must be part of other components of prevention, which include informing young people to delay sex, to the point where they have the skills to negotiate - not only condom use, but negotiate sex - so they can be able to say when they want to have sex, and how they want to have sex.

Q: You've spent a week at a consultative meeting with SAY stakeholders, planning the way forward. How successful do you think the SAY project will eventually be?

A: I can't really say but, as I said during one of the sessions, we are trying to find new solutions to old problems. The problems are continuing, but SAY is trying to look at it from a new angle. Economic solutions, gender-based solutions and a political solution - these are the keys we have. We hope that in one or two years from now, these projects will be able to make a difference to their constituents: the young people affected by HIV/AIDS. That is our hope for SAY.

The media also need to play a more positive role by showing examples of good interventions, initiatives and placing young role models in the spotlight. We cannot do this alone.




Interview with researcher Paul Harvey on humanitarian aid and HIV,  24/Mar/04
AIDS conference underway in Zimbabwe,  4/Mar/04
IRIN PlusNews Weekly Issue 166, 30 January 2004,  30/Jan/04
Are countries spending enough on HIV/AIDS?,  14/Jan/04
Year ender - ARV rollouts in 2003 bring rising hope,  8/Jan/04


The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria
Youth against AIDS
Making A difference for Children Affected by AIDS
Children and AIDS International Non-Government Organisation Network (CAINN)
AIDS Orphans Assistance Database

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