Youth turn to activism on campus

SOUTH AFRICA: Youth turn to activism on campus


? ?IRIN

Vista student finds a new use for a condom

PRETORIA, 21 Sep 2004 (PLUSNEWS) - Gabriel Mahlangu is pleased with his work: 400 condoms handed out in half an hour. It's Friday and students at Vista University in Mamelodi township near Pretoria are making weekend plans.

Mahlangu's black T-shirt with the logo "future leaders @ work" labels him as a volunteer with the Centre for the Study of AIDS (CSA) of the University of Pretoria. He is one of 60 volunteers promoting HIV/AIDS prevention on campus.

The volunteers have organised a Health Day with sports, music and dancing - this is where PlusNews found Mahlangu and his boxes of condoms.

Awareness programmes at the formerly all-black Vista university were boosted when its Mamelodi campus merged with the formerly all-white University of Pretoria, familiarly known as Tuks, earlier this year. The Mamelodi campus has about 2,500 students while Tuks has 33,000.

"The merger and linking with CSA energised, encouraged and motivated us," says Tebogo Moswang, a third-year psychology student and AIDS activist.

The students now have access to Tuks's better resources, administration and, as a bonus - its developed AIDS awareness programme.

Previous prevention efforts at Vista had been fragmented, irregular and poorly attended. The death of the campus' HIV-positive coordinator in 2002 caused all peer education activities to grind to a halt.

But after the merger, CSA expanded by including Vista in its Youth Development Skills (YDS) project, which trains peer educators.

YDS began four years ago by conducting campaigns among students at the University of Pretoria Chorale and went on to develop a training manual for student peer educators. In 2001, YDS also targeted unemployed, out-of-school youth in Mamelodi and Atteridgeville townships, as well as central Pretoria. Since 2000, the team of 20 peer educators have led training workshops on AIDS and gender for some 6,000 youth.

"The work builds up their self-esteem, keeps them busy and looks good in their CV when they go job-hunting,"
said coordinator Sebastian Matroos.

Project staff had initially expected to deal with uneducated youth but found that many of the participants had secondary and tertiary levels, but could not find employment.

Statistics South Africa estimated unemployment to be at 28 percent in 2003 but it is generally accepted that the real figures are higher, possibly around 40 percent.

The publicity surrounding the lobby group the Treatment Action Campaign, has also made AIDS activism "fashionable" and rewarding.

According to Matroos, young people were now confronted by the reality of AIDS, as they were seeing people die from AIDS-related illnesses. "AIDS is getting closer," he noted.

Moswang was "shocked into action" by the AIDS-related death of a cousin in 2001 and admitted that progress was being made on campus. Last month, the students were addressed by an HIV-positive person for the first time. "It was an eye-opener," Moswang told PlusNews.

The findings of the largest representative survey of youth released earlier this year by the Reproductive Health Research Unit at the University of Witwatersrand illustrate the need for more youth prevention projects.

The study found that one in every 10 young South Africans aged 15 to 24 is HIV-positive and 77 percent are women. Coercion of young women was the largest driver of this gender disparity. One-third of sexually active women reported coercion at first sex. Young people were immersed in a culture that does not accept women's sexual rights, the study concluded.

"Guys are weird. If we girls talk or engage in sex, they give us the B-word. If they do it, it's cool," Motau said.

The peer educators agreed, observing that during the first sessions, young men expressed a concept of manhood based on dominance, sexual prowess and risk-taking.

"'No condoms, lots of girlfriends, make babies, I call the shots'. By the end of the first workshop, you see a change," Charles Kekana said.

Peer educator Solomon Modise, attributed this attitude to the initiation rites that many youngmen undergo. "The risk is physical and mental," he warned. Botched circumcisions has landed many initiates in hospital or dead from infection.

Initiation schools also teach boys that by becoming men, they are now entitled to sex. According to Modise, after initiation, his relatives in Limpopo province treated his young teenage cousins as men, offering cigarettes and alcohol, encouraging them to have sex, make babies and ignore condoms.

"Initiation schools should teach what we do to be responsible men, partners and fathers. We need to change or we are doomed," Modise said.

But there are glimmers of hope. Behaviour change among youth under 25 was happening, and young men were getting involved, Liz Floyd, director of Gauteng province's HIV/AIDS programme told PlusNews.

Nineteen percent of the country's population lives in Gauteng, but the province distributes 42 percent of South Africa's condoms, Floyd noted.

Back at the Health Day event at Vista University, Mahlangu was doing his best to raise these figures. As he good-humouredly handed out condoms, most took a packet, some made jokes and a few ignored him. One woman shuddered and recoiled in distaste but her female friend picked up a handful. "This is fun," said a young woman playfully blowing her condom into a balloon.

[ENDS]


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