February 2015

Swaziland Adolescents Work Toward an HIV-free Generation

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“Now that I am growing up, or have grown up already, I might be starting dating,” says Mbongeni Dlamini, a 21-year-old living with HIV in rural Swaziland. During most of his teen years, Mbongeni wondered if he would ever ask a girl to go out with him.

When he was 17, Mbongeni became a founding member of a support group for young people living with HIV. Sponsored by the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF), the Mkhuzweni psychosocial support group began in 2010 with three members — and has since grown to more than 100.

Psychosocial support (PSS) groups are open to children and adolescents between the ages of 8 and 19, as long as the children are aware of their HIV status. Over the years, older participants have begun to take on leadership roles, teaching the younger children about HIV/AIDS stigma, adherence to antiretroviral medications (ARVs), nutrition, disclosure of HIV status, and other issues.

Five years into the PSS program, teenagers who were among the original members of the PSS groups have become young adults. Lessons that the older PSS participants learned as children are staying with them as they enter adulthood.

“I am very aware that before doing anything with my partner, I need to disclose [my HIV status] to her,” says Mbongeni, “but only once I'm very sure that I'm going somewhere with this person. If she accepts me for who I am, it's fine.”

Mbongeni continues to attend the group today and acts as a role model for younger participants.

“I always teach the youngest and say, ‘you should take care of yourself and continue living. It doesn't matter that you're HIV-positive, life is still going on,’” says Mbongeni.

Mbongeni learned about his HIV status in 2008, when he was 16 years old. “Some people would put me down and be scared of me,” Mbongani explains. But joining a children support group, even though the group was small at first, gave Mbongeni and the other members a chance to share with each other and understand that they were not alone.

“The main goal for EGPAF is PMTCT [prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV],” says Fikelephi Mazibuko, program officer at EGPAF-Swaziland. “But we are very aware that some kids still get infected, for many reasons. We go an extra mile to take care of those kids.”

“We are aware that there is still stigma and discrimination out there,” says Mazibuko. “But we are capacitating [the children] on how to address people who are looking down on them because of their HIV status.”

While the PSS program is still focused on issues relating to young children and adolescents, Mazibuko acknowledges that the program will positively impact Swaziland’s PMTCT program as these HIV-positive adolescents grow into adults. If young adults with HIV are properly educated and supported, they will not pass HIV on to their own children.

“From my own experience, I can tell that this program has a positive impact on these children's lives. You know that they have the facts. Moving forward, in five years to come, I'm seeing an HIV-free generation,” says Mazibuko.

“We are hoping that the information that [the adolescents] have, and the knowledge that they have relating to HIV issues, will help them when they are adults. These young couples will be able to know what is expected of them and they will know that they need to support each other as a couple, throughout their lives.”

Read more about psychosocial support groups in Swaziland