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IRIN PlusNews HIV/AIDS News and information service | Southern Africa | BOTSWANA: Raising youth AIDS awareness like 'trying to fight a dead animal' | Care Treatment, Children, PWA ASOs, Prevention Research, Stigma Human rights | Focus
Sunday 25 December 2005
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BOTSWANA: Raising youth AIDS awareness like 'trying to fight a dead animal'

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]


Young people in Old Naledi

GABORONE, 25 January (PLUSNEWS) - It's a well-known fact among young Batswana that their country has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world; they know what HIV/AIDS is, what causes it, and ways to prevent it.

But when you live in townships like Old Naledi, Broadhurst and Bontleng and are surrounded by stigma, poverty, death and disease, all these grim statistics and AIDS messages can leave you understandably disillusioned.

On a hot, dry Monday afternoon in Old Naledi, the largest township, in the capital, Gaborone, a group of young people sit under a tree. This is the weekly meeting of the township's youth taskforce - advisors to the Urban Youth Project (UYP), a sexual and reproductive health campaign targeting unemployed youth, commercial sex workers, orphans and street children.

Theatre group leader Emmanuel (last name withheld) admitted that talking to young people about HIV/AIDS was like "trying to fight a dead animal".

Botswana has all the ingredients for turning the epidemic around: political leadership, optimal use of existing resources and an established treatment plan.

The recent Botswana AIDS Impact Survey (BAIS) found that 89 percent of Batswana know how to prevent HIV infection, 84 percent believe a woman can negotiate safe sex and 41 percent have no misconceptions about the disease.

"Young people are swimming in a pool of information, but none of this automatically translates into behaviour change," Robert Letsatsi, project coordinator of the Centre for Youth of Hope (CEYOHO), an NGO for young people who are HIV-positive, told PlusNews.

Back under the tree in Old Naledi, a 30-year-old taskforce "pioneer", Roy Mafunga, who was recently elected a local councillor, raised some of the issues affecting the country's youth.

Alcohol abuse is widespread in Botswana. "Bars and shebeens are a form of recreation, especially when you are unemployed and have nothing to do - you don't even have to wait for the weekend now, it's happening every day," Mafunga noted.

The heavy drinking is fuelled by the conditions in townships like Old Naledi, as a large proportion of the country's population continue to live in poverty despite Botswana's economic success.

Inevitably, young people were "at the bottom of the food chain", as there had been "very little" investment in them, Letsatsi said.

But these realities were ignored by existing youth prevention efforts. "They need to come to the people ... it's hard to educate someone about AIDS when they are hungry because they won't listen," Mafunga added.

Which is why the UYP is "not just about sex and HIV/AIDS," project manager Magdeline Madibela pointed out. Young people are encouraged to set goals and take control of their lives through income-generation projects, peer-education training and the promotion of youth-friendly health clinics.

Local groups for sports, music, theatre and traditional dances are also involved in the UYP, which forms part of the 'Southern African Youth' (SAY) initiative, a campaign funded by the United Nations Foundation to sponsor youth projects in seven AIDS-affected countries in southern Africa.

The project is also driven by young people - each township has a taskforce, who are responsible for setting the project's agenda, along with the health ministry, NGOs, community groups and the United Nations, Madibela said.

With almost half of all new infections occurring among young Batswana, the reality of the generational crisis could no longer be ignored, she added.

Twenty-nine-year old Alice Manthe is a petite, soft-spoken peer educator and member of CEYOHO - one of the UYP's implementing partners. She found out she was HIV-positive five years ago and has been taking antiretrovirals (ARVs) for the past three years.

Despite the availability of free ARVs, Alice has found that young people living with the virus are reluctant to get help - most young Batswana were "too scared to take the drugs," and not prepared to make such a drastic lifestyle change.

"They tell me that alcohol is better than ARVs - it helps them forget, and they are too young to be living on pills 24/7," Alice added.

Fear of stigma and discrimination makes disclosure of their HIV-positive status even more difficult - only four CEYOHO members out of over 300 have gone public with their status, Letsatsi said.

Nevertheless, as organisers of the popular Miss HIV Stigma Free beauty pageant, a contest designed to fight discrimination, CEYOHO is trying to motivate more youth to come forward and be tested.

"We need to create a comfortable space for young people," Letsatsi said. "Instead of bombarding them with meaningless information, create ways to talk about sex - not in a weird way, but a culturally appropriate [way]."


Recent BOTSWANA Reports
Baby steps in bringing down teen pregnancy,  10/Nov/05
The ABC of Masturbation,  5/Jul/05
Red tape stymies media spreading anti-AIDS message ,  26/May/05
Tenofovir trials to start soon - despite controversy,  30/Mar/05
Anti-AIDS drugs for armed forces,  10/Mar/05
Le portail d'informations générales de la Côte d’Ivoire
The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria
International HIV/AIDS Alliance

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