A group of girls recently gathered in Cape Town to share their love for football, but the true goal of their meeting was to discuss an epidemic which has ravaged their communities.
Young women continue to be disproportionately infected with HIV compared to their male counterparts. However, HIV awareness groups claim young women could help change this pattern if thrown a life line in the form of skills and empowerment.
Grassroot Soccer, Johnson & Johnson and the Academy for Education (AED), partners for youth HIV education in the region, recently gathered a team of 49 girls from South Africa, Namibia and the United States to attend Girlz Got Skillz: A Young Women’s Summit on Health, Leadership & Empowerment. The summit included discussions on among others HIV, life skills and their common love for soccer.
Ian Oliver, programme coordinator for AED from Washington, DC, said the summit was strategically brought to South Africa to precede the Fifa World Cup starting in June.
‘We wanted to find a way of making the World Cup, which has been a male dominated event, more relevant to girls and women in general. We hoped to create a platform for the girls to share their knowledge on various issues that concern them, including HIV,’ said Oliver.
Sharon D’Agostino, Vice President at Johnson & Johnson said they found that giving young people the tools of leadership and healthy decision-making and providing encouragement and hope could make a real difference in addressing the spread of HIV and create the possibility of turning it back.
‘The Grassroot Soccer program offers an effective way to accomplish this,’ said D’Agostino.
‘Namibia has a high rate of HIV infection especially among women and children, so does South Africa. Washington DC has an alarming HIV infection prevalence,’ said Oliver.
He said he hoped that the summit would eventually challenge and change stereotypes about HIV and women’s roles in society.
Oliver said it was encouraging that the girls were sharing information about the different drivers of the HIV pandemic in their communities. ‘Some of the Namibian girls told their South African and US compatriots that in their communities it was normal for girls to have more than one boyfriend.’
Elise Nghaalukako an 18 year old grade 10 student from Namibia said most of the girls in her neighbourhood had many boyfriends.
‘My friend has three boyfriends. She gets a boyfriend everywhere she goes. She told me that having one boyfriend is not enough. But I always tell her to rather stick to one because having more partners increases the risk of getting infected with HIV,’ said Nghaalukako.
She said some of the girls were in relationships with older men who paid them for sexual favours.
Sinoxolo Mawisa a 16 year old, South African Grade 10 learner said many girls in her neighbourhood fell pregnant while at school. She said girls her age also had relationships with older men because they gave them money.
Lucky Moahloli, a 21 year old life skills and soccer coach at Grassroot Soccer took some of the girls on a tour around Khayelitsha. The tour was to give the girls a brief view of Khayelitsha while one of the coaches shared his experiences living in the township.
Moahloli related to the girls a story about a friend he met at initiation school where he had gone to be circumcised at the age of 13.
‘When you are initiated girls love you and sometimes throw themselves at you. My friend and I were interested in girls. We often shared girls and exchanged them between one another. I used to date some of the most beautiful girls in my neighbourhood after I’ve gone to bed with one I would let him sleep with her and he did the same,’ he explained.
The girls stared at him stunned and unbelieving.
‘I was a grade ahead of him at school so I had more information at that time I knew about HIV and how it spread. I used a condom each time I had sex but he did not,’ he continued.
Moahloli said he spoke to his friend countless times about HIV but he failed to listen. In 2006 his friend was diagnosed with HIV after being sick for a while.
‘I got worried after he had told me about his status. I did not have enough information about HIV and I thought I would get infected through being with him. I decided to stop visiting him,’ he confessed.
Moahloli moved to Cape Town to pursue his studies in travel and tourism. He later got involved with Grassroot Soccer. It was while listening to his coach at Grassroot Soccer that he realised that he ‘couldn’t have contracted HIV had he continued visiting and supporting my friend’.
‘I realised that my friend is still my friend even if he has HIV,’ he added.
After three years of not seeing his friend Moahloli ‘went and apologised for deserting him.’
He said he made sure that he related his story whenever he met with new players.
‘I think the coach’s stories are very important and I find that my story is the most powerful part of our meetings because most kids think there is no life after HIV,’ he said.
The girls participated in many other activities including a Skillz CafÃ© where they had a powerful roundtable talk about women’s issues. To close off the summit they had a celebration that included a friendly soccer match at the Football for Hope Centre in Khayelitsha. The girls who participated in the Cape Town workshop were aged between 14 and 19.
An independent study done in Zimbabwe to measure the effectiveness of the Grassroot Soccer Skillz curriculum showed that after participating in the programme learners could speak more openly about HIV.
About 76% of learners knew where to get help for HIV related issues while 71% of learners believed that condom use was an effective way of preventing HIV infection. Learners were four to eight times less likely than their peers to report risky behavior including early sexual debut, sexual activity in the last year or more than one lifetime partner. Similar results emerged in other participating countries.
Grassroot Soccer has sites in Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa and its curriculum is being implemented with the help of partners like Johnson & Johnson and AED in various other countries in Africa. Since 2003 over 270 000 youth have been part of the programme. It hopes to reach a million youth by 2014.
According to the Joint United Programme on AIDS (UNAIDS), women and young people make up the highest number of HIV infections. UNAIDS reports that of the 33 million people infected with HIV worldwide 15.7 million are women and 75 percent of this number are young women aged between 15 and 24.
Avert, a UK based HIV charity organisation reports that HIV prevalence among young women aged 14 -24 in Zambia was nearly four times that of males of the same category.