Agents of Change working to reduce HIV infection rates in Zambia
In the dusty yard of Musweshi Basic School in Zambia's Central Province a large group of children laugh and joke as they play.
But their ice breaker game is a precursor to a more serious activity. Afterwards, back in the classroom the children listen intently as young volunteers Emma Lupiya and Jesse Hughes teach a lesson on puberty and the changes that occur to the body.
The lesson is part of a wider effort to educate Zambian young people so that they can make smart decisions related to their sexual and reproductive health. Zambia has a population of approximately fifteen million, half of whom are under eighteen. According to the UN 1.2 million of the country's people are HIV positive, while a recent government report concluded that less than half of young people were able to identify ways of preventing the sexual transmission of HIV.
Christabel Machila of Restless Development, the agency that placed the volunteers in Musweshi community, explains that providing peer or youth led information services is a key means of increasing levels of knowledge around sexual and reproductive health amongst Zambian young people, with the goal of reducing HIV infection rates and curbing teen pregnancy.
Throughout Zambia there are a wide range of civil society organisations working to meet the development challenges the nation faces. Many of these agencies, like Restless Development, are youth led and work to give young people a voice in bringing change to Zambian society.
Zambia is a conservative society and it can be difficult for youths to discuss sexual and reproductive health with adults says the straight talking Mwewa Chipili (21) from Agents of Change. “But change is inevitable” he insists. “We can't deny that young people are engaging in sexual activity. The problem is they have no one to talk to about these things.”
Like Restless Development, Agents of Change use the peer education model to spread their message. The agency run radio workshops for young people - creating youth led broadcasts on issues such as HIV prevention. Agents of Change co founder Brighton Kaoma (22) underlines the importance of getting the message across when he explains that every hour three young Zambians between the ages of eighteen and twenty four are infected with HIV.
The youthful Kaoma has also co designed U-Report, a UNICEF supported text information service on HIV prevention targeted at young Zambians, who like young people in Ireland, are enthusiastic mobile phone users.
The dedication of activists like Chipili and Kaoma is having an effect. Zambia has managed to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of reducing HIV infection rates and four out of every five adults who require antiretroviral drugs to treat the disease have access to them.
At the Planned Parenthood Association of Zambia premises in central Lusaka a group of young adults shelter from the sun under an awning. The group are trained in volunteer outreach and provide sexual and reproductive health workshops in communities across the city. They also staff something called the youth friendly corner. “The youth friendly corner provides information on sexual and reproductive healthcare services to fellow youth,” says Faustino Musopelo (21). “We'll have a chat with them about what is available.” The service is designed to make the clinic a welcoming place for first time visitors and is another example of how young Zambians are volunteering to help and support their peers.
But at just twenty one why does Musopelo, like so many of her generation, devote her time to volunteering and activism? “I really have the passion to help the youth”, she says. “I'm a youth and I want to be the person who'll be acting and not just speaking about action. I want to be involved in the development of this country.”
This feature was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund.
Producer Derek O' Halloran's radio documentary titled “The Sky's the Limit. Young People and Development in Zambia”, will broadcast on Newstalk 106-108fm at 7am, and is repeated at 10pm on Saturday 21st of November.