A Growing Epidemic: Adolescent HIV/AIDS
“If you are a girl from a poor background, you see your peers having some things, and you want them. Then this older guy approaches you and provides you with everything you always wanted. He gives you something and you have to give him something back. There’s no other way than sex,” says Amanda, a Peer Mentor in mothers2mothers’ (m2m) new adolescent-focused initiative in South Africa.
In response to the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic among adolescents, m2m recently trained and hired Amanda and 24 other Peer Mentors, between the ages of 20 and 24, to promote HIV counselling and testing, as well as critically-needed safer sex education, among their peers in KwaZulu-Natal, the epicenter of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in South Africa. Supported by USAID, through m2m’s Innovations Award, m2m’s new integrated adolescent health/RMNCH (reproductive, maternal, newborn, child health) draws from the DREAMS initiative, launched by the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in Eastern and Southern Africa to ensure that adolescent girls and young women are Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS Free, Mentored, and Safe.
Rates of HIV infection among adolescent girls and young women, aged 15-24, continue to increase, with up to 7,000 new infections a week globally.* Just as worrisome, adolescent girls and young women in South Africa continue to make up 40% of the total pregnant population.** These high numbers of HIV infections and pregnancies are driven by gender inequalities, poverty, gender-based violence, age-disparate relationships, and limited access to quality adolescent and youth friendly services.
The goal of m2m’s KwaZulu-Natal Adolescent Girls and Young Women’s project is to address these challenges, and to reduce HIV infections and HIV-related mortality and morbidity among young women. m2m Peer Mentors, like Amanda, co- facilitate youth clubs and support groups in communities to increase knowledge and demand for services, including referrals and linkages for HIV testing and counselling, sexual and reproductive health services, and link those who are positive to care for treatment, and to ensure prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) of HIV.
Meet some of m2m’s new Peer Mentors:
Amanda, age 22, mother of two
I decided to be a Peer Mentor because of the things that were happening around my community. I had kids at a young age and I keep on seeing that happening.
I like to be a Peer Mentor to help other young women to have someone to talk to who is their age. They tell us it’s very good to talk to someone who is your age, who understands you, who won’t judge you like your mother. I want to be the shoulders who they can cry on and the person they can talk to.
I talk to them about the importance of preventing, testing [for HIV], and using a condom wherever they are. Because we can’t stop them from doing what they are doing, the best we can do is help them not to have unplanned kids, and to continue with their studies and whatever they want.
I try to teach them how to behave, to appreciate yourself, and respect yourself. You can’t expect someone to respect you if you don’t respect your own self and love yourself. I always tell them if you want people to appreciate you, you have to appreciate yourself. It starts with you.
Lumgile, 24, mother of two
I think it’s important for young women to have a peer to talk to because they are scared to talk to their mothers. They are freer to talk to somebody their own age.
For the girls who are HIV positive, I teach them that they should have hope that there are more years and I give them support. And for those who are HIV negative, I teach them the importance to stay negative because we want to keep the new generation AIDS free.
I had two boys when I was in school. I was so scared, confused. I thought my life is going to be a mess. Some of my clients are like me, and I tell them I have children, and you can carry on with your life. We need to achieve those dreams. If you have a baby, your life isn’t over.
Phumelele, age 22, mother of a 7-month-old girl
First of all, when I heard about [the Peer Mentor job] I was excited because it was a job where I am going to be my age, and talk to people who have been through what I have been through, like I had a child at an early age
It was hard introducing this job to my parents. [I told them] I’m going to talk about these issues that everyone is scared to talk about with other girls. I’m going to be the first one to talk about this and make people free to talk about the issues.
The most important thing I tell [my clients] is if they are involved in sexual intercourse they must protect themselves every time. They tell me it’s not as easy. My partner doesn’t want to use them. I give them strategies on how to introduce this condom on their partners. I give them strategies and some advice on how to tell their partners why it’s so important to use it.
I tell them that you can be resilient, you can make your life what you want to be without depending on someone and putting your life and your health at risk. Your life is your life, you have to make healthy choices about your life.
Balumgile, age 25
In our tradition, it’s never been easy talking to a parent about having boyfriends, or starting dating, or if you want to know your [HIV] status. They find is easier communicating to us since we are the same age as they are. We give them advice that it’s very important to know their HIV status and give them the do’s and don’ts for when they start planning to have sex, like the importance of condoms.
What I hope for my clients in the future is a change. Some of them party and some of them fall pregnant which I know is an unplanned pregnancy. Whatever they do, they should think before doing. That’s the change that I would like to give to them. Whatever you want to do, think about it first before doing it.
* 2015 UNAIDS Gap Report
** Human Services Research Council, 2012
This story is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). The contents are the responsibility of mothers2mothers and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.