Tisamala: HIV-Positive Teens Taking Care of One Another

By Andrea Uehling | December 9, 2013

In Zambia, the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF) works with local partners on a mentor program to provide support to adolescents dealing with the everyday struggles of HIV.

James Pursey/Tanzania

The teen years are tough for many, but they can be almost impossible for adolescents living with HIV. The challenges of growing up are made even more difficult by the physical, social, and emotional toll taken by the disease.  In Zambia, the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF) works with local partners on a mentor program to provide support to adolescents dealing with the everyday struggles of HIV.

Zambia has been hit hard by the AIDS epidemic:  Nearly a million of the country’s 13 million residents are living with HIV, and according to a 2011 UNICEF report, adolescents make up 24 percent of the overall population. Teens in Zambia face the same challenges all adolescents face; but they also encounter other obstacles – early sexual activity and parenthood, poverty, transactional and forced sex, and rigid cultural gender roles – that can contribute to more teens contracting HIV. Adolescents  with HIV are less likely than adults to take their medications regularly, putting them and their partners at risk. In addition, teens often face stigma in their communities because of their HIV-positive status, leading some teens to deny their status or avoid telling their partners.  Adding to these challenges, many teens are orphans, having lost parents to HIV related diseases, and are living with extended family or other caregivers.

HIV support programs often focus on HIV prevention rather than the needs of people – particularly adolescents – already living with HIV. The Tisamala Teen Mentors program – in Nyanja, the local language in Zambia, “Tisamala” means “we take care” -- offers psychosocial support to teens living with HIV. It offers adolescents the opportunity to be part of a support group led by HIV-positive peer mentors. Through these support groups, adolescents can ask questions about their health in a safe and understanding environment.

EGPAF trains HIV-positive teen mentors who either volunteer for the position or are nominated by members of their local support groups. Each mentor is 17-18 years old, knows their HIV status and is comfortable talking about it, and has received consent to participate from a parent or guardian.

Over the course of a five-day training program, the HIV-positive teen mentors discuss a number of issues: helping other teens speak about and cope with their HIV-experience; gender and sexuality; risky behaviors and healthy relationships; and dealing with grief and loss. Mentors also receive support from program counselors in organizing and promoting their support group sessions in their communities.

Feedback from support groups  show that the teens who participated demonstrated a greater knowledge of HIV. This information helps protect teens from engaging in risky behavior. Greater knowledge of HIV has also been linked to increased condom use, which can help protect potential partners.  Additionally, support group members felt more empowered to make positive decisions and speak up for themselves when facing difficult situations.

The Tisamala Teen Mentor program is a great example of the work EGPAF is doing to address the growing population of adolescents with HIV.  As noted in the recent UNICEF stocktaking report, in order to reach an AIDS-free generation additional focus is needed on both the first and second decades of a child’s life. 

To learn more about our work in Zambia, visit Zambia’s Country page.

Andrea Uehling is the Senior Country Officer for EGPAF’s Zambia program.