With a population of about 1.1 million, the small state of Swaziland in southern Africa has one of the highest rates of AIDS prevalence in the world. Roughly 26% of adults are infected with HIV, and average life expectancy is 47 years. As a result, thousands of Swazi children grow up without parents, residing either with other adult relatives – often grandmothers struggling to raise several orphaned grandchildren – or in child-headed households. Others must care for their sick parents. Without parents to support them emotionally and financially, children are often unable to attend school and do not receive proper nutrition and healthcare.
HIV/AIDS thus forces an alarming number of Swazi children to grow up too fast. To help fill the void left by ailing or deceased parents – and prevent the further spread of HIV/AIDS – the Swiss Red Cross, the Swaziland Red Cross and local health authorities have developed a comprehensive strategy of intervention.
Targeted at Swazi orphans and other vulnerable children, the current project has two primary goals. The first is to overcome obstacles that keep children from completing primary and secondary education – most obviously, lack of money to pay school fees. The second, with a focus on older children and youth, is to prevent new HIV infections, combat prejudice against people living with HIV/AIDS and provide education in life skills and health-related topics.
The Swiss Red Cross provides school fees and uniforms for participating children throughout their time of primary and secondary education. Once a prerequisite for attending school, the uniforms give the children a sense of belonging and are usually the only nice clothes they have. The children also periodically receive food support and free health consultations or medication at the Red Cross clinic. The Home Based Care (HBC) teams, composed by both Red Cross staffs and volunteers, do offer much needed emotional and social support.
The Swaziland Red Cross runs a youth programme for older children with help from the Swiss Red Cross. Working through peer educators who visit schools, communities and national youth-targeted events, the programme teaches young people how to avoid HIV infection and debunks misconceptions that fuel the stigma against people living with HIV/AIDS. It further includes training in life skills, healthy sexual behaviour and other issues that impact the health of children and youth, such as child and drug abuse. The peer educators use theatrical performances to communicate their messages, a technique that has proved to be highly successful. To make the approach self-sustaining, teachers will be trained to train the peer educators in future.
Every year the project reaches approximately 58'000 children and young adults across Swaziland who are directly or indirectly affected by HIV/ AIDS. For them, going to school or to a play represents an opportunity not only to acquire essential skills and information, but also to socialize with other young people and to momentarily forget their difficulties at home. Their loved ones will benefit from the public health information the children share – for instance, that they should get their sputum tested in case of a persistent cough – as well as from the children’s positive educational and psychosocial development.