Communities and youth are key changemakers in overcoming HIV/Aids

Summer school

Communities and youth are key changemakers in overcoming HIV/Aids

THE 2023 THEME for World Aids Day – “Let communities lead” – emphasised the critical role that communities play in making progress towards overcoming Aids. This acknowledgement of the strategic position of communities to connect people, build trust, facilitate change and enforce accountability was also the theme of the recent annual summer school for the flagship programme of the Africa Centre for HIV/Aids Management at the university.

Each year, students enrolled in the Postgraduate Diploma for HIV/Aids Management at the Africa Centre start the academic year with a week-long summer school where experts share the latest insights and expertise on the epidemic. Deciding on a theme for this year’s event (5 to 9 February) was a natural choice. In addition to the World Aids Day focus, Africa Centre director Dr Munya Saruchera pointed out that many of the current obstacles to ending the epidemic – including stigma, attitudes, behaviour, exclusion and inequalities – are evidence of the historical neglect of communities in HIV/Aids leadership and engagement.

Keynote speakers focus on collaboration and challenges

The presenters explored various aspects of a community-led HIV/Aids response, starting with two prominent keynote speakers. Anne Githuku-Shongwe, regional director of UNAIDS East and Southern Africa, talked about current collaborations between UNAIDS and communities and highlighted opportunities and challenges for communities when collaborating with role players. While Githuku-Shongwe believes community-led approaches are key to reaching the most marginalised people, she warned that there is still a lot to be done: “Community leadership is an asset; yet it is underresourced, unremunerated, undersupported, underacknowledged and even under attack.”

The second keynote speaker, Gideon Byamugisha (cofounder of ANERELA+ and patron of INERELA+, which are networks of religious leaders living with or personally affected by HIV), focused on the role of faith-based organisations (FBOs) in setting the community health agenda and contributing to HIV/Aids targets. This includes instilling the spiritual virtues and community values that are necessary for equitable, holistic and sustainable health and wellbeing and that will ultimately reduce infections, stigma and injustices.

While FBOs have been adapting their responses to the epidemic as knowledge and science have evolved, according to Byamugisha love remains the philosophical, spiritual and moral foundation of their HIV/Aids interventions. “In families, communities and countries where loving the unloved and unlovable, comforting the agitated and agitating the comfortable are either lacking or insignificant, increases in new HIV infections, transmissions, illnesses and deaths are evident.”

Community and youth action pulls through to adacemic environment

Community impact also extends to the academic environment. According to Dr Burt Davis, senior lecturer at the Africa Centre, cocreating knowledge through collaboration between universities and communities creates buy-in and trust between the community and academia, which is the foundation of fruitful community endeavours. “Within communities’ stories and actions lie the scientific answers we as academics are looking for, especially when it comes to key social issues like HIV/Aids. Letting communities lead is an effective way of harvesting these narratives and translating them into empirical solutions.”

The summer school further zoomed in on the role of youth communities, as the group that has the biggest stake in the future. The youth is particularly vulnerable when it comes to the risk of HIV infection, yet they contribute energy, adaptability and creativity to the battle. The inspiring youth leaders who shared their perspectives included Zanele Cekiso (quality assurance coordinator at SEAD Consulting), Teboho Mohloai (regional programme officer of SAT and secretary general of AfriYAN), and Nyasha Phanisa Sithole (programme officer for youth leadership and engagement at MenEngage Global Alliance and cofounder of the Development Agenda for Girls and Young Women in Africa Network).

Cekiso believes that the distinctive traits and experiences of the youth – such as their savviness with digital platforms – are vital to finding fresh approaches to dealing with HIV/Aids-related challenges. Mohloai added that youth can play a key role in the sustainability of policies: “Youth involvement guarantees that policies reflect the evolving values and priorities of society and are relevant for future generations.” She also advocates for youth as agents of change since young people “often possess the passion and idealism necessary to challenge the status quo”.

With youth often not being taken seriously, there are intergenerational gaps to bridge. “To build a more inclusive and productive society, we have to encourage open communication, understanding and cooperation between generations,” Cekiso explained. This is easier said than done.

Sithole highlighted several actions required for youth engagement to be meaningful, including financial and technical resources, peer learning and mentorship. “For a long time young people have only been recipients of projects; there is however an opportunity for them to engage as researchers too,” she said. “Potential partnerships can include formalising and accrediting peer education training and supporting young people to document their experiences and their work. This will go a long way in changing the narrative and how young people can be involved as active participants in HIV/Aids management.”

HIV/Aids on the global issue agenda

Despite the trend of HIV/Aids moving down the priority list of global issues due to other crises, the youth continue to view it as a critical public health challenge. “The epidemic requires sustained attention and resources due to its impact on public health, economics, society (including education and employment) and global health security,” Mohloai stated.

Other topics covered in the course of the week to help inform the community response included the epidemiology and control of HIV/Aids, the macroeconomic and socioeconomic impact of the epidemic and practical community mobilisation. Speakers also looked at the relationship between HIV/Aids and several factors such as migration and poverty, fear, stigma and isolation, sexuality and gender equality, as well as culture.

Putting theory into practice, discussions have opened up about collaborations between the Africa Centre and organisations represented at the summer school, highlighting the unharnessed power of a unified approach. As Mohloai said: “By working together, youth and established institutions can create innovative solutions to the challenges facing Africa and the world at large, making a lasting impact on communities’ health, wellbeing and prosperity.”

Anne Githuku-Shongwe
Gideon Byamugisha

The two keynote speakers at the Africa Centre summer school were Anne Githuku-Shongwe, regional director of UNAIDS East and Southern Africa, and Gideon Byamugisha, cofounder of ANERELA+ and patron of INERELA+. Githuku-Shongwe has also served as a senior international development professional with the UN and represented the UN Women’s South Africa Multi-Country Office (SAMCO). Byamugisha is an Anglican reverend canon and visiting professor at various universities in East Africa and beyond. In 1992, he made history by becoming the first religious leader in Africa to publically announce that he was HIV positive.

Zanele Cekiso
 Teboho Mohloai 

Nyasha Phanisa Sithole

Representing youth leadership and the next generation of HIV/Aids advocates: Zanele Cekiso is a healthivist, registered nurse and quality assurance coordinator at SEAD Consulting. Teboho Mohloai is the regional programme officer of SRHR Africa Trust (SAT) and secretary general of the African Youth and Adolescents Network on Population and Development (AfriYAN). Nyasha Phanisa Sithole is a programme officer for youth leadership and engagement at MenEngage Global Alliance and cofounder of the Development Agenda for Girls and Young Women in Africa Network.