International Youth Day: a message from Lesotho
Meaningful inclusion of young people is key to effective HIV programming, says Lehlohonolo Mohasoa. And young people are our greatest hope in ending AIDS.
“I really believe HIV can be eliminated through the active engagement of young people,” says HIV programme coordinator, Lehlohonolo Mohasoa, when we meet in a quiet corner at the recent International AIDS Conference in Durban. His message on International Youth Day for people who are working with young people on HIV around the world? “Do them justice by engaging with them meaningfully, and give them all the tools and resources that they need to fight HIV.”
“Young people are at the centre of the HIV pandemic and they are also the world’s greatest hope in the struggle against it. The only way to halt the spread of HIV is to work effectively with young people and have them leading the HIV response.”
Mohasoa is drawing from his own experience in Lesotho where he is programme coordinator for community organisation Phelisanang Bophelong (PB), which encourages young people to access HIV services and discuss sexual health. Their work includes a focus on the marginalised lesbian, gay, and transgender (LGBT) community and prisoners.
One part of PB’s approach has been to set up youth exchange forums to get input from young people on issues around HIV and sexual health. The youth exchange forums serve as platforms for young people to share information and experiences on what works for them, the challenges they face, and what could be done better to respond appropriately to their HIV and sexual health needs.
This involves visiting schools and communities to meet young people. It also includes a prison inmates youth group for those between 18 and 24, which continuously engages with young prisoners to get their input on what can be done – and what tools they need – to respond effectively to HIV in prisons. The programme also engages frequently with young people from the local LGBT community to understand their needs, and share information and experiences.
“Getting input from young people about HIV and sexual health has helped us to shape our interventions in a way that suits them,” says Mohasoa. “One thing we have learnt from young people is that they do not like it when things are imposed on them. They want to be engaged and their opinions heard about how things should be done.”
“In my opinion, input from young people about HIV and sexual heath is really important because we cannot do something for young people without it. If we do, then we will end up not responding to their needs effectively.”
Lesotho has the second highest HIV prevalence in the world, with 22.7% of people aged 15-49 living with HIV (UNAIDS, 2015). Adolescents and young people are particularly at risk of HIV and often don’t have sufficient knowledge to know how to protect themselves, and young girls are more affected than young boys. Sex is a taboo culturally and young people struggle to talk to their parents about sexual health.
For Mohasoa, this means that young people can’t just be seen as passive recipients of HIV programmes, but need to be used as change agents. “They are really capable of inciting change and more than ever have a vital role to play,” he says.
“Let’s give them a leading role and empower them to gain an active voice to change unjust systems that keep young people vulnerable to HIV. Given a leading role in the HIV response, young people can be very instrumental in holding leaders and govenrment accountable for their commitments.”
Mohasoa is also clear that involving young people and getting their input makes projects more sustainable. This needs to be both at the project design stage and in implementation. “Sustainability involves investing in our young generation so that they can have the capacity to lead things in the future. Young people need to be engaged extensively, empowered and given the tools and resources necessary to bring about significant change.”
So does he have a final message for those reading this on International Youth Day? “There is nothing for young people without young people. Let’s all work together in good faith to create an AIDS-free generation.”
Lehlohonolo Mohasoa is HIV Programme Coordinator at Phelisanang Bophelong, AVERT’s partner in Lesotho. He spoke to AVERT’s Head of Digital, Simon Moore, during the International AIDS Conference held in Durban from 18-22 July.