International Youth Day 2019: Building an AIDS free generation through education

This International Youth Day 2019, we are celebrating “Transforming education”. Making education more relevant, equitable and inclusive can boost poverty eradication, good health, gender equality, decent work and growth, reduced inequalities, action on climate or building peaceful societies, according to the United Nations.

At Sentebale, we believe that increasing educational opportunities for vulnerable children and those with HIV is crucial to improve life prospects. Working with children and young people to change the tide of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Southern Africa by placing youth at the forefront of the issues that affect them most is at the heart of the organisation.

“Education is the foundation for all development work and so it is very important that we encourage and support young children to remain engaged in mainstream education,” Sentebale chief executive Richard Miller said. “In Lesotho and Botswana, HIV and AIDS has had a terrible impact on a generation of young people and these effects will be felt long into the future, so this will continue to be a vital part of the work.”

The mountainous Kingdom of Lesotho has a young population, with nearly half of all inhabitants under the age of 18. A staggering 48% of children aged 5–17 have lost one or both parents, to various causes including AIDS, according to MOH and ICF International. In Botswana, 120,000 children are orphaned by AIDS, the United Nations Children’s Fund latest estimates show. These children are at the forefront of vulnerability.

“A whole generation has been lost to HIV and skills and education can help communities recover as well as help prevent new infections,” Miller added. “The evidence is clear that every year longer a young person stays in school the less likely they are to be infected with HIV – especially young girls. Education is at the root of combating HIV and building an AIDS free generation.”

Education affords young people the knowledge and economic options they need to make informed choices about decisions affecting their sexual lives – including greater HIV awareness, condom use, delaying early marriage and childbearing.

Lesotho has made recognisable steps in ensuring that all its citizens attain basic education, but access to secondary education is poor, with only 51% of girls and 35% of boys aged 13–17 attending. In Botswana, increased access to senior secondary education means the country is now on a positive course. By 2020, the government is hoping to increase enrolment in secondary school by 35% as part of its ambitious development plan.

An integrated approach to programming has been taken across both countries, where Sentebale delivers several programmes that educate children, young people and surrounding community members.

The Youth Hub programme provides adolescents and young people with correct information on Sexual Reproductive Health and HIV prevention – identifying those with HIV and linking them to treatment – and skills building/ livelihoods. The role of informal and peer to peer education is fundamental. In the last year, trained peer educators facilitated Comprehensive Sexuality Education  sessions for out of school adolescents and young people aged 10–14, reaching just shy of 7,860 of these across Lesotho.

“It is important that young people receive good quality, factual information from people they can rely on. Stigma and secrecy encourage the spread of HIV and Sentebale works to train young people to deliver clear factual information to their peers. From our outreach work in the remotest villages to national level support and advocacy with our Let Youth Lead programme, Sentebale is supporting informal education as another strategy to end the scourge of HIV,” Miller explained.

Over 1,150 adolescents and young people were also reached with sessions on children protection rights, child marriages and inheritance laws facilitated at community level. A total of 38 community leaders attended the workshop on sexual and gender-based violence laws, prevention and reporting.

Children and to a lesser extent adolescents up to 19 years depend on their parents or caregivers to access HIV testing and treatment. Ensuring caregivers are empowered and educated about HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and care means children and those living with HIV are more likely to remain in school because their condition may be better controlled, which in turns could mean higher levels of adherence to antiretroviral therapy (ART).

The Saturday clubs and five-day camps that Sentebale runs provide essential life skills and psychosocial support to youngsters living with HIV, and their caregivers, which helps deal with issues of stigma and ultimately educates the wider population to support all those who have been affected by HIV.

The countries’ youth are essential in leading the way for a more relevant education. Sentebale’s Let Youth Lead programme aims to strengthen capacity and provide a platform for young people to advocate for improved education, health, and protection services that better support the needs of this age group in their region, through use of score cards and community dialogues. Since 2017 the programme has trained a total of 68 young people as youth advocates.

“Sentebale aims to engage with communities over a long period of time – especially by working with children, together with their caregivers, and young people. Listening carefully to the needs of young people is at the centre of our approach and we also work with local organisations who share our values and ways of working. It is important that our programmes are led by local communities and that they have clear ownership and set the agenda. They will have the best understanding of what is needed.”

Ensuring this generation has access to adequate rights-based approaches to sexuality education, and remains longer in school is key to empower communities across Southern Africa.

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