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HIV/AIDS Awareness Campaigns Target South African Children

  • Lisa Schlein

About 5.7 million people in South Africa are living with HIV, including approximately 280,000 children under the age of 15. In addition, between 1.5 and three million so-called AIDS orphans have lost one or both parents to this disease. South Africa runs several HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns and some are specifically targeted to children.

The Johannesburg suburb of Soweto is particularly hard-hit by the AIDS epidemic and multiple advocacy groups are offering various programs that are trying to keep children HIV/AIDS-free. One educational video describes the results of a behavioral study on HIV/AIDS. The study was carried out in the 10 southern African countries in which the Soul City Institute works. The research indicates multiple and concurrent partnerships between men and women are the key drivers of the HIV epidemic in the region.

The video presents graphic scenes of couples engaging in sexually risky behavior. Other scenes show what partners must do to protect themselves from getting HIV.

Susan Goldstein, senior executive for the Soul City South African Program, says her organization has never encountered any problems with the sexually explicit scenes portrayed in their AIDS awareness campaign.

"We believe that children need to have as much information as they can in order to make healthy choices," said Goldstein. "We have never had a negative reaction. I think South Africa has reached a stage in the epidemic where most parents are only too pleased that somebody is talking to them about sex to their children. And, if it takes a little of stress off themselves, all the better."

Soul City also produces a weekly TV drama aimed at 8 to 12 year olds. The show, called "Soul Buddyz," provides life-saving messages in an entertaining manner to children before they become sexually active. The TV show has spawned a radio show and a national network of 6,000 Soul Buddyz Clubs.

Themba Motaung, from the Soul City Institute, says the purpose of the clubs is to protect children from HIV, from violence, bullying and other dangers that exist by empowering them with knowledge. More than 120,000 children are members of the clubs, according to Motaung. He says the children become social advocates for change within their peer groups, as well as within their homes and communities.

"I believe once they are empowered, they should be strong enough to be to make those decisions," Motaung said. "Because in a world of materialism, you want to teach children, the Soul Buddyz program teaches children values. So they should be empowered to make the right choices. That is what the Soul Buddyz club program is all about."

Four groups of children are huddled in intense discussions. The topic chosen for this week's meeting of the Soul Buddyz club is bullying. But, they are quite ready to talk about HIV and AIDS to interested visitors.

Mbali, 11, explains what she does as a Soul Buddyz peer educator. "I teach them not to be worried about what diseases they do have and I teach them to not worry about some child when they are teasing them and saying, 'Yeah, you -- you have HIV' and things like that," she said. "I am telling them to not worry about that."

Provincial trainer, Thuli, trains facilitators about how to run a club. She is in charge of 800 Soul Buddyz clubs in Gauteng Province in Soweto. She says that since most of the children in the clubs come from disadvantaged families, Soul Buddyz tries to build up their self-esteem and teach them to care for each other.

"We find kids with some real serious problems, others have been abused by parents," said Thuli. "Others have got parents who are alcoholic. Others, they are from child-headed families where there are no parents. Others, they stay with Grannies where the granny can not take care of the child anymore. So, with Soul Buddyz, we are trying to bring them together and let them work with other kids, and feel they are part of another family."

While Soul City and other advocacy groups are committed to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and have been found effective in what they do, the statistics are not on their side.

World Health Organization figures from 2008 show that more than 33 million people worldwide were living with HIV and two million had died of AIDS.

As of now, the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has provided anti-retroviral therapy to 2.8 million HIV victims. While that is substantial, WHO says 9.5 million people in developing countries are in need of life-saving AIDS drugs.