Turning loss into hope
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. When this project was initiated, roughly 26% of adults were infected with HIV, and average life expectancy was 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 developed a comprehensive strategy of intervention.
Targeted at Swazi orphans and other vulnerable children, the project had two primary goals. The first was 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, was 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 provided school fees and uniforms for participating children throughout their primary and secondary education. Once a prerequisite for attending school in Swaziland, uniforms give children a sense of belonging and are usually the only nice clothes they have. The children also periodically received food support and free health consultations or medication at the Red Cross clinic. Home Based Care teams, composed of Red Cross staff and volunteers, offered 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 topics 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, in the project local teachers were trained to train future peer educators.