Youth come together to combat HIV/Aids scourge


. . . as ‘nothing about us without us’ mantra gains traction


Maseru – Amidst soaring unemployment rates, hunger, and poverty, young Basotho find themselves at increased risk of HIV and AIDS as many engage in risky behaviors, such as drug use and transactional relationships, often resorting to exchanging sex for financial support. In the process, they also frequently face Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV). According to the Lesotho Population-based HIV Impact Assessment (LePHIA 2020), Lesotho ranks as the second-highest country globally in terms of adult HIV prevalence, with an estimated 5,000 new HIV infections each year.

Shockingly, 80% of these new infections occur among individuals aged between 15 and 34. In response to this crisis, through the National AIDS Commission  (NAC), Basotho youth have united to form the National AIDS Commission Youth Consortium (NACYC), a dynamic youth forum committed to coordinating the HIV and AIDS response tailored for youth. With a multi-sectorial, youth-led approach, NACYC ensures that young voices and experiences take centre-stage in the battle against HIV, echoing their motto, “#Nothing for us without us”. NACYC thrives on diversity and inclusivity, representing a wide spectrum of young voices, including young professionals, youth with disabilities, youth in media, and youth in business, youth in rural areas, youth in tertiary schools, youth living with HIV/AIDS, key populations, young mothers, and youth in sports and recreation.

Their collective belief is that HIV poses a substantial threat to the national economy, diverting funds that could otherwise be invested in infrastructure and youth empowerment. NACYC champions the notion that if young people lead in HIV response and no new infections are recorded by 2030 the next generation can hope to live in an HIV-free nation with a stable economy.

In an interview with Public Eye, a NACYC youth representing the private sector, Lesenyeho Nkopane, who is an Architectural Technology graduate, youth activist and entrepreneurship and business developer, and a President of Junior Chamber International Lesotho said: “My motivation behind being part of National AIDS Commission Youth Consortium comes from seeing HIV and AIDS statistics escalating in Lesotho. As a youth activist in economic development, I saw a danger that is going to affect the economy if it can’t be checked, therefore I wanted to be part of the youth at the forefront of accelerating response towards ending AIDS”.

Nkopane added that youth in the private sector can actively engage in the efforts to make Lesotho AIDS-free by 2030 if they are well sensitised about issues pertaining to the AIDS status quo in Lesotho and given a chance to express their opinion on how they can participate.

“This will lead to Lesotho’s economic growth because the money resources that are now directed to AIDS will be shifted to poverty reduction at the same time ending unemployment,” one of the stakeholders said. On the other hand, a representative of youths in rural areas within NACYC, Bokang Molelle, who currently serves as the custodian of two farming companies, PBL Farm Products Pty Ltd and Number One Piggeries, and is also the Chairman of the Leribe Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said one of his mandates is to promote entrepreneurship and job creation through community projects and business enterprises, empowering communities by engaging them in activities that enhance their livelihoods.

He noted: “At the same time, we cannot always provide them with food hampers, as it is not a sustainable solution,” adding that Basotho have a saying, “Lela e lapileng ha lena tsebe,” which when loosely translated means “A hungry stomach does not listen.” This indicates that young people resort to risky behaviors due to poverty, leading to an increased risk of HIV infection.

When giving his remarks on World AIDS Day (WAD) 2022, under the theme “Let’s Equalize, HIV and AIDS Services for All, Leave No One Behind” his Majesty King Letsie III said  inequalities in service delivery, initiatives to combat HIV and AIDS, escalating gender-based violence (GBV), along with rising levels of hunger and poverty, are contributing to new infections. King Letsie III also said young people are particularly vulnerable and Lesotho is facing a significant threat.

In an interview with this reporter, the Chief Executive of the National AIDS Commission, Lebohang Mothae said Lesotho at different fora, be it the UN, SADC, and AU, is committed to becoming an active participant in the global efforts to combat HIV as a public health threat. “This commitment has been a process spanning over three decades. Throughout this period, NAC has been legally mandated to coordinate all national efforts and lead interventions within the country. Most importantly, NAC ensures that there are reports, accountability, and a demonstration of Lesotho’s performance at all the mentioned levels,” she said. Mothae added that Lesotho has responded to the HIV epidemic in various ways during this period, and it has performed well against global targets, such as achieving the “90, 90, 90” goals and surpassing them. She noted that it’s well known that when examining the performance in tackling HIV, there are certain areas that aren’t performing well, with new infections being particularly critical.

“Even though new infections have been significantly reduced, the level remains high, which is unacceptable. It’s even more concerning that 80% of these new infections occur among young people who represent the future of our country, and we aspire to see them living without HIV.” She said when it comes to ending the HIV epidemic, it’s not just about addressing the older population but the focus must also be on the younger population. Given the persistently high rate of new infections among young people, Lesotho faces the risk of failing to achieve its targets as a country. This underscores the importance of young people in the response.

“NACYC is stepping in to lead interventions and responses for young people,” she said. “They understand the context of young people, can relate to them, and can effectively communicate with them.

“Moreover, there is no fear of discrimination and stigma among young people, making it easier to provide the right programmes and ensure access to interventions. Young people can also take responsibility for their own lives and health and support each other in the fight against HIV.” Mothae shared her personal perspective on leadership, believing that everyone, in their own capacity, has the power to influence and effect change, which she referred to as “shared leadership”.

Addressing health issues can be challenging because they often occur within specific, localised contexts, and those best equipped to understand them are the individuals within that community. “The same applies to young people, who may have a better understanding of situations like orgies (sex parties where guests freely engage in open and unrestrained sexual activity or group sex),” she explained. “Honestly, when I first heard about orgies, I wished we could capture those moments on video and observe how older individuals reacted, how fearful they were, and how unaware they were of such activities happening within their own communities, involving their own children. To truly programme for and discuss orgies, one must have first-hand experience and a deep understanding of how they occur.” She added: “To address the challenges young people face and the lifestyles they lead, which we may not have the power to change, the responsibility for making a difference rests with them. They can influence each other, bring about changes and, where possible, alter behaviours or traditions within their own peer groups.

“However, this can only happen if they have a platform to lead. It won’t be possible if individuals other than young people continue to be in the forefront, holding power, authority, resources, and everything required to drive change. If we aim to witness improvements in terms of performance, progress, effectiveness, and impact of interventions, we must reconsider our methods, methodologies, and approaches.

 In Lesotho, the annual incidence of HIV among adults aged 15 years and older stands at 0.45%, equivalent to approximately 5,000 new cases of HIV each year among adults. The breakdown reveals that HIV incidence is 0.64% among women and 0.28% among men.

Maseleso Mphonyo-Makatleho Lekoala, who holds a Diploma in Tourism Management, a Galileo Certificate, and an Adventure Tourism & Hospitality Certificate, and has prior experience working with NGOs like EGPAF (Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation), is actively engaged in data cleaning activities.

She is specifically responsible for linking HIV-positive statistics with COVID vaccine statistics. Lekoala explained her role as a representative for young mothers within NACYC.

“My primary mission is to ensure that young mothers today can give birth to HIV-free children.” She highlighted that Gender-based Violence (GBV) significantly contributes to the increase in HIV infections among young mothers and girls. GBV can lead to coerced sexual activity and lack of control over sexual decision-making, resulting in a higher risk of unprotected sex and HIV exposure. She added that economic and social empowerment is crucial for young mothers to negotiate safe sex and make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health.

NACYC is involved in a wide range of activities aimed at coordinating the HIV response for youth, including advocacy and awareness campaigns, workshops, and social media engagement to promote HIV prevention, treatment, and stigma reduction.

They conduct educational programmes in schools and communities to encourage safe sex practices, stress the importance of testing, and raise awareness about HIV. Peer support is provided to youth living with HIV to offer emotional and informational assistance.

The forum promotes prevention through the distribution of condoms, organises regular HIV testing events, offers counselling services, and provides training to young leaders to enhance their response to HIV among the youth. NACYC encourages safe practices, including regular testing and adherence to treatment, and ensures that healthcare services related to HIV are youth-friendly, accessible, and free from discrimination.

Matseliso Mokitimi, a Professional Social Worker, who advocate Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR), is also a mental health advocate who serves as a member of NACYC in the capacity of Young Professional, Structural Leadership. She actively contributes to the planning and execution of initiatives, programmes, and events related to HIV prevention. Additionally, she provides oversight and guidance in on-boarding processes, policy advocacy, and support for policies that promote SRHR and HIV prevention and treatment, which includes advocating for improved healthcare services.

This year’s World AIDS Day theme, “Let Communities Lead” underscores the importance of communities, including those within higher learning institutions. Among these communities, is Gabashane Masupha who represents the youth in higher learning institutions within NACYC.

He is committed to bringing his various expertise in ways combating BIG new infections.

The Political Science and Administrative Studies student at the National University of Lesotho (NUL), is also a human rights activist, social scientist, and political analyst. He currently serves as the President of the Human Rights Association founded by NUL under the leadership of the UNDP Human Rights Chair.

“I am an Ambassador of Tataiso, which is a male engagement programme for young men, established to enhance their psychological, financial, social, and interactive well-being. We conduct seminars to help young men build confidence and discover their true identity through information dissemination and their roles within society,” he said.

Masupha is also recognized as the first young Mosotho to receive a TEDx award in the country and is the founder of both “Spend R20 Thursday,” an initiative where people intentionally spend M20 each Thursday to support small businesses, and to promote financial literacy for youth.

Mpeo Kherehloa, from Thaba-Tseka Methalaneng, who is a member of the Lesotho National League of the Visual Impaired Persons (LNLVIP) representing youths with disabilities, said: “In line with this year’s theme of ‘Let the Communities Lead,’ youths with disabilities aim to have a say in how they receive assistance in healthcare facilities, where services are often not inclusive. They often hesitate to visit clinics because they are accompanied, perhaps by an interpreter, which compromises their privacy and makes them uncomfortable.”

Kherehloa said NACYC provides the right platform to advocate for Persons with Disabilities (PWD) in terms of HIV education and other health-related discussions, emphasizing the importance of delivering information inclusively, such as through audio materials, especially for visually impaired individuals, as opposed to written materials. The principle of “Nothing for us without us” remains a central focus, ensuring that youth living with HIV are actively involved in the fight for an HIV-free Lesotho by 2030.

Rakhantsa Lehloibi, known as Malome Skipper or Uncle Rich, is a prominent HIV activist from Mohale’s Hoek. In the 2022 World AIDS Day (WAD) event, he was recognized as a Keynote Speaker at the Manthabiseng Convention Centre, sharing his own HIV journey and encouraging others to adhere to Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART).

His story was even featured in a published book in Zimbabwe. Despite facing challenges and treatment failures, he stressed the importance of collective efforts to combat new HIV infections, pointing out that Lesotho spends significant resources on purchasing medications.

He said: “Even with assistance from other nations, the funds that could be used for the development of our economy are channeled into providing ART for Basotho. I firmly believe that, like leprosy, HIV can be eradicated.”

Malome Skipper echoed a Sesotho proverb, “Letšoele le beta poho,” loosely translated as “Together we can,” underscoring the significance of working together through organizations like NACYC to reach far and make a greater impact.

‘Masentle Gladys Makara is a Professional Counsellor

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