Although youth participation is a pillar of international HIV/AIDS policy, it is notoriously difficult to facilitate. We explore this challenge through a case study of a community-led HIV/AIDS management project in a South African rural area, in which anticipated youth participation failed to materialise. We take a social psychological view, examining ways in which opportunities offered by the project failed to resonate with the social identities and aspirations of local young people. Interviews and focus group discussions were conducted with 37 young people prior to the programme’s establishment and with 21 young people four years later. In response to questions about what they wanted to achieve in life, the young people emphasized: career success through migrating to urban areas to seek education and paid work, non-tokenistic involvement in community affairs, and ‘having fun.’ We look at how the project unintentionally evolved in ways that undermined these goals. Its strong local focus was inappropriately tailored to young people whose views of the future focused on getting away to urban areas as quickly as possible. The volunteer nature of the work held little appeal for ambitious young people who instead saw paid work as their way out of poverty and were reluctant to take unpaid time out from schoolwork. The project failed to develop new and democratic ways of operating — quickly becoming mired in traditional, adult-dominated social relations, in which young people with initiative and independent views were sometimes belittled by adults as being ‘smart’ or ‘clever.’ Finally, the project’s focus on sexual abstinence held little interest for young people who took an enthusiastic interest in sex. The article concludes with a discussion of the complexities of implementing youth-friendly projects in communities steeped in top-down adult-dominated social interactions, and recommends ways in which similar projects might seek to involve youths more effectively.
African Journal of AIDS Research (2010) 9 (2) 153–163.