Randburg — When her parents died, Precious Kakusa went to live in an orphanage.
There, already struggling with life on her own, she overheard whispers about herself. The teen was devastated when one day fellow students scribbled on the wall of the classroom, "Precious Kakusahas
AIDS." Soon after, as part of a project under CARE International Zambia, Precious began her Hero Book, in which she drew and personified this problem in her life as Chikonko, who represents Stigma.
15-year-old Precious then took a courageous step and began telling her story to the girls in the orphanage. How at thirteen she had been raped because there had been no one to protect her. She told the other girls that the shame belongs not with her, but with the man who raped her and infected her with HIV. "Stigma was one of the things that was almost breaking me down," says Precious.
The "Hero Book" is just one of the tools and strategies developed by REPSSI, an NGO working in 13 East and Southern African countries to lessen the devastating effects of HIV and AIDS, conflict and poverty on children by providing psychosocial support. As the world once again celebrates the annual 16 Days of Activism, REPSSI is calling for greater recognition of the importance of supporting girls' education, mental and social development as an investment for a better future. For Precious, the support helped turn her life around.
"I was almost reaching a point of giving up hope and on life. No sooner did I surrender than I came across the Hero Book, the Book which helped me develop tricks and tactics to counter stigma," she explains. "I learned to confront my fears and resentment with speaking openly about my status."
Across Africa, girl children face many challenges, including early marriage, forced labour and gender inequality, which all lead to less education and less opportunities in both childhood and as they grow into young adults. Many of these inequalities also render girls more vulnerable to poverty, abuse, exploitation, and health problems, especially HIV and AIDS.
A joint report issued by UNAIDS, UNFPA, and UNIFEM back in 2004 cited education as key to an effective response to HIV/AIDS. Studies show that educated girls and women are more likely to know how to prevent HIV infection, to delay sexual activity, and to take measures to protect themselves. Since then, girls' education has been recognised as a critical tool in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Yet girls are still often the first taken out of school when family finances are tight, or when there is an ill family member or younger sibling to be cared for.
The last decade has also seen increasing recognition that the face of HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa is primarily female. In nearly all countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the majority of people living with HIV are women, especially girls and women aged 15-24. In South Africa, HIV prevalence among young women aged 20-24 is approximately 21%, compared to about 7% among men in the same age range. In Lesotho, nearly 8% of young women aged 15-19 are living with HIV, compared to about 3% of their male counterparts. (UNAIDS 2009)
HIV and AIDS are closely related to gender-based violence, as both a cause and consequence. Sexual violence, and inequalities that make negotiating safe sex sometimes impossible, leave girls and women vulnerable. At the same time, stigma and discrimination can result in physical, emotional, and economic violence against women and girls who disclose.
The inter-linkages of all of these issues – gender violence, HIV/AIDS, inequality – is complex and deep rooted. Yet if we are to address any, there is a clear need to address all. Supporting and investing in girls from a very young age into womanhood and providing them with essential social and emotional support, is key to tackling these challenges.
REPSSI's assistance includes providing easy-to-use and culturally-appropriate tools, and sharing innovative approaches. REPSSI trains partners to provide social and emotional services to children and their communities, and produces activities and tools that can be used with children, youth, communities and families. REPSSI has also become a technical partner to SADC; set regional standards; trained a pool of regional expertise; created an innovative new distance-learning course; and developed a comprehensive body of knowledge which can be applied at community level.