By Tanyaradzwa K. Vinho

I am a young man from Zimbabwe who plays an active role in bringing youth voices and perspectives to the global fight against HIV/AIDS in my respective country and community. I was selected as one of two members from the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF) Zimbabwe to participate in EGPAF’s Committee of African Youth Advisers (CAYA) to create projects that assist youth-led solutions. My breadth of experience working with adolescents and youth living with HIV (AYPLHIV) was one of the reasons I was selected for this role. I previously served as a Community Adolescent Treatment Supporter (CATS) with Africaid-Zvandiri in partnership with EGPAF and assisted hundreds of AYPLHIV by providing support with adherence, linkage to care, psychosocial support, index case finding, peer-to-peer counseling, encouraging disclosure and facilitating support groups.

I also serve as an EGPAF Youth Ambassador where my role is comprised of supporting demand-generation activities. These are aimed at increasing the identification of AYPLHIV through advocacy and championing HIV Testing Services and national sector representative (Treatment, Care, and Support) for Zimbabwe Young People’s Network on Sexual Reproductive Health, HIV and AIDS (YPNSRHHA). This aims to have open dialogues about SRH to prevent new HIV infections and disseminate information to AYP from different sectors. It is also focused on achieving the 90-90-90 goals.

In working with young people in my community and through personal experiences, I have come to acknowledge and recognize the major challenges faced by AYPLHIV. Most AYPLHIV face stigma, discrimination, and late disclosure of their HIV status by caregivers. These challenges are contributing to the defaulting of ART medication, stress, and mental health issues. I wish to advise Community Based Organizations (CBO’s) to continue offering quality adherence, psycho-social support, and education to the communities of HIV/AIDS to mitigate stigma and discrimination. Stakeholders and policymakers should involve AYPLHIV in the designing and implementing of youth-related programs. This will allow policies and strategies to address the needs of AYP in their diversity including the YLHIV.

I have made an impact on the lives of AYPLHIV by focusing on fostering good health and wellbeing. This includes increasing PLHIV’s access to SRH service and reducing HIV related stigma and discrimination through disseminating accurate information of HIV/AIDS in and out of schools. Through advocacy work, I have participated in different technical working groups, strategies review, and validation meetings. I have also worked closely with AIDS Action Committee through YPNSRHHA by sending in the concerns of my peers and prioritizing several issues. Through community-based support, I have been involved in supporting AYPLHIV. I found that their medication adherence and viral load suppression improved a lot where they started coping well with their health and living a positive life. I also empowered my peers to live a positive life and understand that being HIV positive it’s not a death sentence.

I have supported parental-to-child communication with caregivers and helped them understand the benefits of early disclosure, the process of disclosure, and that disclosure to their children can improve adherence. I have experience in conducting sessions on the importance of disclosure in relationships working with my peers to disclose their HIV status before indulging in sexual intercourse as we are fighting the pandemic of HIV and being HIV positive should not limit your dreams or goals in life. It is possible to get married and have children that are HIV negative with your partner.

The peer-peer counseling sessions l conducted with several AYP in denial helped them to accept HIV status and taught them to cope effectively while not being limited to the stigma and discrimination within their communities. The Community Based PSS Groups l led shared different topics that helped transform my peers who were losing hope, suffering from mental health illness, and had no confidence. The PSS sessions contributed to boosted self-esteem, gave hope to the hopeless, and allowed them to smile. Through information sharing sessions, focus group discussions and educational SRH video screening sessions, AYP made informed decisions about living with the future in mind. The majority of AYPLHIV in PSS groups are now empowered with accurate information and can make positive changes. I also conducted substance abuse group discussions and individual counseling sessions with AYPLHIV who have been engaged in substance abuse. After the sessions, there was a positive change where some individuals were reformed and still reforming. This is due to them understanding the implication of drug abuse to health. I have made the voices of AYP stronger and louder by sending in their interest, concerns, and sharing their challenges in the response to Sexual Reproductive Health and HIV/AIDS.

I want to ensure that HIV/AIDS strategies address structural barriers and are designed with young people in mind. I advocate for youth friendly services to ensure inclusivity for all young people to be able to access services without fear. I have gained a deep satisfaction, knowing that I have contributed to making the lives of young people better and have given them a chance to a brighter future. It brings me great joy to know that I have also given a voice to the voiceless, which is needed in our generation and beyond.

During COVID-19 and lockdown period (like in my country), my greatest fear is that we might have an increase of ART defaulter cases of AYPLHIV due to limited follow-up by Community Healthcare Workers. Moreover, I am fearful of limited Sexual Reproductive Health, HIV/AIDS, and other services because they are not related to COVID-19. My call to action during this pandemic period is that relevant stakeholders should have the provision of online counseling to help all AYPLHIV access psycho-social support. I also hope stakeholders utilize available toll-free numbers in our respective countries that address the issues affecting AYP in their diversity as well as keep striving to improve high-quality healthcare services.