New anti-AIDS campaign targets young people

Swazi health authorities on Wednesday launched an ambitious anti-AIDS campaign targeting people between the ages of 20 and 30 years - the group most affected by the virus.

The R3 million (US $458,000) programme, supported by private-sector health and social welfare NGOs, was underpinned by a strong abstinence message.

"We are promoting delaying sexual activity but in this age group there are already many young people who have had sexual experiences, so we are primarily stressing the need for self-protection," said Nana Mdluli, communications officer for the National Emergency Response Council on HIV/AIDS (NERCHA).

NERCHA distributes monies from government, private donors and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria to groups working in AIDS prevention, treatment and mitigation. The council brought together all the relevant health and youth stakeholders to agree on a national strategy for reversing the rising number of HIV infections.

Swaziland has the highest rate of HIV infection in the world.

Referring to a billboard showing a confident, smartly dressed professional woman, Gcebile Nkosi, a 22 year-old Mbabane office worker, commented, "I am like the woman in the billboard - I took charge of my life in order to save it when I found my boyfriend was cheating on me. He could have easily contracted HIV and passed it on to me - it became a case of self-preservation triumphing over the love I held for that boy."

The message is: "I am not going to share my partner with anybody", and the poster will be going up in schools, clinics, bus stops and libraries all over the country, and duplicated in full-page newspaper adverts.

NERCHA's Mdluli explained, "The woman cannot control what her partner does, but she is warning him that if he does take another girlfriend, he will lose her."

Faith-based groups involved in the campaign have also embraced the abstinence theme. Swazi churches are popular social centres for the 20 to 30 age group and pastors wield significant influence among their congregations.

The abstinence message follows a self-esteem building campaign aimed at Swazi teens, launched in March this year.

"We seek to instil self-confidence and tell teenagers they are in control of their bodies and their destinies; the same is true for the adults. It's a message of independence: that a girl can stand up to cultural pressures and say 'no' to sex, and she can say 'no' to a male relative who wants sex, even though a girl in Swazi culture has been told to always obey men and elders," said a copy writer on the campaign.

As part of the initiative, peer counsellors are being trained and sent out to rural areas, where four out of five Swazis live.

"We stop young people and ask them questions - simple things like what a condom is for. When they answer correctly, we give them a cap or key chain with the campaign message on it," said Constance Dube, a volunteer peer counsellor who receives a R50 gratuity from NERCHA.

"We are bringing the message to young people by telling them not to be afraid," Dube said.