By Tambudzai Muzenda
While working with youth in the SRHR and HIV/AIDS sector, I have realized that most youth or adolescents either affected or living with HIV/AIDS share a rich bond that is not often considered in the HIV community response. Despite youth coming from diverse indigenous groups, they share common values and beliefs that facilitate healing, positive meaning, and confidence in the future of their health. While adherence clubs are crucial in positive living, there is still a gap in coping methods and thinking beyond the talk about treatment, healthy life, and the possible future. This is especially seen in times of stress and processing the loss and grief.
While in South Africa, the present-day burden of HIV remains that of women and girls, more youth across the country are bearing the weight of this inheritance; a lethal legacy that has left devastating effects on their loved ones, teachers, and role models. However, there is still hope.
When focusing on young women, it is without a doubt that many feel empowered and have found means to pave a positive path. Through interviews and open discussions, young women highlighted how accepting their HIV status is powerful enough to make a difference in their lives. And despite the challenges they face, such as leadership conflicts that often undermine their voices and lessons, they still recite their stories of hope, resilience, and opportunity.
Gugu, a 27-year-old young woman activist, fighting against HIV stigma and discrimination, emphasizes acceptance as the first step to healing, forgiveness, and self-care. She is the founder of Break the Silence Mzansi campaign focusing on HIV and gender-based violence, a member of TAC and previously a member of Survivors of HIV SA team:
Once I knew my status, it wasn’t more important to point fingers at the person who had infected me. I was more into caring for my health, and that responsibility made me stronger. For me, I was no longer a victim. I am an overcomer, survivor, and fighter.
A concern raised by Gugu was a need for education at a community response level to deal with discrimination and stigma that continues to kill many young people, making it difficult to accept their situation of living with HIV:
I don’t want to see my peers go through the same journey. I have a made pledge to speak out. I will be the voice of the voiceless. We need more knowledge surrounding HIV because stigma kills. Not everyone living with HIV has fully accepted their status—it’s not ignorance but stigma and discrimination. So, I don’t care what people say about my HIV status, but more about those who still find it difficult to accept. That’s why I fight against stigma and discrimination towards PLHIV.
Similar to Gugu, young women in South Africa find resilience is key to positive living and planning a future beyond their HIV status. Lekoane, a 25-year-old woman living with HIV, highlights that her story is one of self-growth despite the beginning being difficult. The establishment of a support system that helped her grow was crucial and has kept her going – she emphasizes support from her partner, who is a pillar in her life and constantly seeking inner peace and mentoring to grow. For some, the capability to do more than your status is strength in itself and a realization that more is possible.
Lekoane’s story is one that is shared by many girls and women who have found the source of power from within. She writes:
Resilience has the capacity to bounce back or recover quickly from any tough or hard situation, difficulty, or challenge. As a young woman living with HIV, I actually discovered the many tools I use and philosophies as I grow up. After losing my parents, I thought my life was over. I had no vein of hope left in me. I just could not hold on any longer. But life just had a way to force me to face the situations that I kept running from.
My partner is the best thing that has ever happened to me. She is very supportive and makes me feel that I am living with HIV and that I must accept myself as I am. She taught me about meditating so that I can be able to heal my inner self – it is working like a miracle. Mental health is important, and therefore my peace of mind is a priority. For me waking up every morning is a serious privilege. So, I took a personal vow that each and every day of my life, I will make one or two people happy so that they can be able to see their worth in life. That is what keeps me going daily.
Then I have my mentors who support me in other areas of my life. And my role models that I look up and they inspire me whether they are HIV Positive and HIV Negative. So I can say that I am surrounded by a lot of positivity and inspiration. And it is by choice for the sake of my peace of mind. I always drive myself to the point of sanity because I know, and I am fully aware that I have other young people who look up to me out there. I love writing, and I have an active Facebook page where I always write motivational and inspiring messages. I also share some health information so that people stay informed. I am not JUST an ordinary young woman who is living with HIV. I can recognize myself as a young person who is hungry to bring change to my community; I am that very important tool who is not only an agent of change but the voice of the
voiceless. How we program our minds toward HIV will be the exact results of how our lifestyles will turn out to be. So if you get tested, and the results come back positive, make a choice of being positively positive or negatively positive! I believe that nothing beats recognition.
Both Gugu and Lekoane’s stories, along with others in South Africa, underscore an urgent need to work with young people to have similar outlooks on effective prevention, treatment and care strategies and support beyond treatment adherence. These stories are compelling and call on adults everywhere to demonstrate their willingness to confront difficult issues where young people, especially young women, are rallying to support each other.
Sibongile Tshabalala, National Chairperson of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), acknowledges the revolutionary power of young women’s resilience as an area to contribute and create change when saying:
Young women within the space of activism and members of TAC are growing to be independent, and be strong women leaders of South Africa. Our world, the world of females, is in safe hands with these kinds of young women leaders for as long as we continue to support them and listen to the ideas for response at the local level.
And despite the small numbers of young women engaged, the difference they make is the greatest opportunity to defeat HIV/AIDS.