Today's young people are the first generation that has never known a world without HIV and AIDS. In Ethiopia, where more than half of the population is under the age of 24, cultural attitudes among the older generation towards sexual health issues are making it difficult for young people to arm themselves with the knowledge they need to keep themselves safe.
But one enterprising group of youngsters in Addis Ababa, the BEZA Anti-AIDS youth group, are determined to use their combined talents for music and dance to get messages about HIV prevention across to the wider public, and in particular to their peers. The youth group members, aged between 15 and 20, have founded a dance troupe called Addis Beza which means ”to live for others”. Addis Beza perform regularly in popular public spots around Addis Ababa, using the occasion to hand out information leaflets and to encourage people to get tested for HIV free of charge so that they know their status and can be treated accordingly.
The Beza youth group is one of just hundreds across Ethiopia
supported by OSSA and is soon to benefit from an ambitious multi-country
project called Link Up, managed by a consortium of international and national nongovernmental organisations led by the Alliance (see below).
The mobile testing clinics are organised by Alliance Linking Organisation, Organization for Social Services for AIDS (OSSA), Ethiopia’s largest NGO working on HIV, and attract up to a thousand people over the course of five days. If somebody is found to be HIV positive, they are then referred on to a local health facility for access to treatment, care and support.
At the youth club centre, as well as training long hours to familiarise themselves with the complex traditional dance moves, members also take it in turns to offer a drop in counselling service for young people and to give out free condoms. Habtegoregies Hailu, better known as Habte, is the club’s chairman and, knowing that most of his members have had no sex education at school or at home, is determined to help them navigate through their teenage years.
“We’re going to save ourselves first, and then become a shelter for others who need protection,” he says. “This is the start not the end for us, helping protect young people from HIV.”
The club’s regular debate session is always well attended by members and this month’s topic - what is the right age to start having sex – has drawn quite a crowd. Opinion is fiercely divided but everybody gets the chance to express a view.
According to charismatic troupe leader Samson, 17: “We have to have sex, we strongly have to. Because number one we are created biologically with the need and second the Bible says to be reproductive so we have to fulfil God’s word and use our body. What is it for otherwise!”
Wendimagegne is more hesitant:“I’m for waiting until marriage because we won’t be able to handle the consequences. We’re not knowledgeable enough at 16.” It is Nbetye’s input that causes the youth group members to erupt into giggles: “We have to start now while we have the time, otherwise we’re going to sit on the bed on our wedding day and just stare at each other. Why not practise now?”
Habte wraps up the debate by asking: “How much control we do we have over ourselves, over our bodies? Marriage is not necessarily a timetable for having sex. While we’re young it’s ok to experience, but with one partner rather than lots. It’s ok to jump in and enjoy life but do we take responsibility for our actions? Enjoy life but go and get information on how to enjoy it responsibly and carefully.”
Samson is typical of the kind of young person that the club aims to attract. Now a model student taking an evening class in hotel management, he was once branded a trouble maker and had a history of petty stealing. Brought up by his grandmother, his father died when he was a baby and he has no real knowledge of his mother. Remembering when he was younger, he says: “We got into fights with gangs from other villages, we had problems with the police and if I show you my head I have three cuts.”
“After I joined Addis Beza, I got lots of benefits,” he continues. “That benefit is not financial but a change in my life. Although I joined for the dance I learnt lots of things. I did not have self-awareness until now and it has helped me to teach other people what I have learned. There is a big difference between the old me and the new me.”
Samson has seen first hand the tragedy that HIV can hold for young people if they do not have the knowledge they need to understand how to manage the virus. His friend Abel took his own life on discovering that he was positive, too frightened to reveal his diagnosis to his family for fear of being rejected.
“If you catch HIV it means that everyone will discriminate against you,” Samson says. People will think that you can’t live with anyone, that it is an alien disease. [Before joining the youth group] the opinion I had is that it’s not even possible to eat together. Our families used to say that it's a punishment from God.
“I did not have any knowledge and didn't know its methods of transmission, but I have learned how to practise safe sex, when I should start sex, what I need to do after sex if a woman gets pregnant.”
Over the course of the next three years, the Link Up project will reach more than one million young people aged 15-24 by implementing tailored HIV and sexual and reproductive health interventions to increase uptake and access to services and reduce unintended pregnancies, new HIV infections and HIV-related maternal mortality. In Ethiopia the initiative aims to reach 140,000 young people to improve their sexual health.
With young people aged 15-24 accounting for 40% of new HIV infections globally, Samson and his fellow dancers are playing their part as duty bearing citizens. “I want to make Ethiopian culture known to the world,” he says proudly. “Here we say that we are the light in a big pot, we want to be the light for others.”