HIV prevalence has fallen by more than 25% among young people in 15 of the most affected countries according to the latest UNAIDS report. This shows how prevention messages around safer sexual practices are really making a difference and saving lives.
Sarah, 19, reported that there was a lack of awareness of sexual reproductive health issues, especially relating to family planning and HIV testing, in her home community of Lolikokwa, Karamoja.
Her observations are well founded. The Karamoja region of North-Eastern Uganda has been devastated by decades of armed conflict, cattle raiding, extreme poverty, instability, drought and weakened state authority. Poverty has brought with it extreme vulnerability to HIV and AIDS risks. In an initial study in 2009, only 7% of young people reported using condoms the last time they had sex. This is alarming considering that 6.3% of the population are living with HIV and AIDS.
However, young Karimojong are a massive resource in turning these statistics around. Through training funded by UKaid and delivered by Restless Development, young volunteers are supported to implement activities in their communities to improve the skills, health and livelihoods of their peers.
Supporting young Karimojong as leaders in their own communities means they are better equipped to address the drivers of poverty and inequality in the region. Sarah in particular decided to take action. “It is in this month that I took my first ever blood test after various sessions on HIV and AIDS.” However, Sarah didn’t stop there. “I have participated in forming the free testing club in Lorikokwa and I think that the club will grow from the thirteen members registered now to a bigger club. I have also encouraged people here to go for family planning sessions at the health centre.” As more and more people joined the club over the duration of the project, Sarah now plans to transform the free testing club into a Community Based Organisation.
Sarah’s story is testament to the effectiveness of the programme in raising awareness of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and increasing access to health services. However, in a setting where youth sexual health indicators are critically low, it was essential to change behaviour. Young volunteers demonstrated significant impact in decreasing 3 major high risk behaviours in young women:
- multiple partners - reducing by over 60% (13% to 5%) in young women,
- condom use - increasing by 10 times (5% to 50%) in young men,
- cross generational sex - reducing by almost a half (19% to 10%) in young women.
Challenging young women’s perceptions of themselves
Challenging young women’s perceptions of themselves in particular, as well as attitudes towards them, is central to ensuring changes in behaviour, especially with regards to sexual health.
As well as raising awareness of HIV and AIDS through group sessions, volunteers work to build essential life skills of young people. This includes critical thinking and decision-making, interpersonal communication, coping and self management, and motivation for healthy lifestyles and livelihoods. In a climate where so few young people have completed formal education, this is an essential foundation for long term change.
Perry Maddox, Director of Restless Development (Uganda) asserts: “The Youth Empowerment Programme has demonstrated that even in conflict, extreme poverty and isolation, young people share a restless determination to make things better. Anything is possible when we channel this energy into development work.”
Facts and stats
The Youth Empowerment Programme receives a grant from DFID Civil Society Challenge Fund.
In 2009/10 the programme reached 39,000 Ugandans, of which 3,365 were in Karamoja.
Over the period 74 young volunteers delivered 1,500 educational sessions and activities on life skills, livelihoods, gender, peace building and sexual and reproductive health.
Concurrently, staff worked with partners including over 100 local teachers, health workers, police and community organizations to increase their skills in working with young people.