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MALAWI: Empowerment of girls key to tackling HIV

Photo: IRIN
Mercy Msiskashe has benefited from vocational training
Blantyre, 24 June 2004 (PlusNews) - Last year 19-year-old Mercy Msiskashe was forced to drop out of school because her family could not afford to pay the fees.

"Some of my family members encouraged me to find a boyfriend and then get married. They even went to my parents, telling them that the only thing left for me was to look for a partner," she told PlusNews.

But a meeting organised by Malawi's ministry of youth, sports and culture encouraged her to seek alternative ways of continuing her education.

"I learnt a lot from that meeting. I made a decision that I should look for a technical training course. Most of my friends rushed into marriages - some have kids that they cannot support, while others, because of the need to have money, died of AIDS," she added.

Msiskashe is now one of six young women attending a year-long tailoring course at Jenga Training Centre in the northern Rumphi district.

Improving the vocational skills of Malawi's youth has become a critical defence in preventing the spread of HIV, particularly among young women.

Humanitarian agencies have attributed the rise in the infection rate of young women to a lack of educational and vocational opportunities.

In an effort to raise HIV/AIDS awareness among them and improve their life skills, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the authorities have teamed up to assist young people.

"The UN agencies are supporting two youth projects to encourage the participation of girls in social activities through clubs. The projects also empower young girls by providing vocational training where they learn carpentry, tailoring and motor vehicle mechanics," UNFPA programme assistant Daniel Msonda explained.

The interagency effort, funded by the UN Foundation under the banner of the Southern Africa Youth Initiative on AIDS (SAY), aims to ensure that adolescent girls have the same rights and opportunities as boys. "Giving them seed money or soft loans to start their own businesses is one way of achieving the objectives of fighting AIDS among our girls," Msonda told PlusNews.

The money received from UNICEF could be issued as revolving loans, to enable young women to start their own small-scale businesses such as fish farming, chicken rearing or tailoring.

The projects also aim to raise HIV/AIDS awareness among girls, of which a key component is training peer educators in local communities.

"After being trained, these peer educators go back to the communities and tell the other youths where they could get information on HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases. They also help in the distribution of condoms," Msonda said.

Wilfred Lichapa, who oversees the project in the department of youth, told PlusNews: "We want more of these girls to do technical jobs. They should also have access to sexual reproductive health and family planning services."

The projects have already elicited a positive response from the youth.

"We have achieved almost 75 percent of what we intended to do. There has been a reduction in pregnancies and the HIV infection rate since the projects started," Lichepa said.

Theme (s): Other,

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

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United Nations - OCHA
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Irish Aid
Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation - SDC