Improving sexual health – one table football match at a time

At a youth centre in Bujumbura, Burundi, the table football is the centre of activity. Young people crowd round, cheering and supporting their chosen side as enthusiastically as a real football match.

The centre opened its doors in May 2014 thanks to Link Up, an ambitious project which is improving the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of more than a million young people in Bangladesh, Burundi, Ethiopia, Myanmar and Uganda. The project is funded by the Government of the Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs (BUZA).

RNJ+ members crowd round table football at the youth centre, which is a one of its kind in BujumburaThe support RNJ+ (Réseau National des Jeunes Vivant avec le VIH/SIDA)  receives is invaluable. People attending its youth centre are young people most affected by HIV. This includes young people who sell sex, LGBTI people and people living with HIV.

The centre is one of a kind in Bujumbura. Other youth centres exist but not with this same non-judgemental philosophy. The centre offers information, training, HIV counselling and testing, contraception advice and male and female condoms, a helpline, and community and schools outreach.

The services that RNJ+ provide equip young people with the information they need to make their own decisions. With more than half of Burundi’s population under age 17, it’s no surprise the youth centre is a popular place, and because of Burundi’s young population, it’s essential to reach adolescents to prevent HIV and unwanted pregnancies. Young people attending all have their stories to tell, from being abused at home due to being gay, to having children at an early age due to a lack of family planning advice.

The space itself cannot be underestimated. One member, Pacfique, 20, can testify to this. Pacifique (above right) was born with HIV, which he found out when he was 10 years old.

“When I first found out I was HIV positive I thought I was someone who won’t live for very long. I thought I was about to die so there was no need to seek out anything. I thought I couldn’t even get married, I was just here waiting for my death.”

Pacifique with classmates

“I was very surprised when I first came to RNJ+ because I found very beautiful girls and handsome boys. The people ‘shined’, so I thought it must only be me who is living with HIV.”

— Pacifique, 20

When Pacifique realised he was among peers, he began to open up for the first time in his life and “I felt I could share everything.”
So what may look like just table football actually symbolises acceptance and informal emotional support which has a very real impact on individual’s lives.

“RNJ+ is my second family. It’s where I can meet young people who share the same views, who have the same way of seeing the world, and they’re the ones who support me,” says Pacifique.

Next generation

Executive Director, Cedric Nininahazwe, 27, has known Pacifique and many of its other 400+ members for years. He too recalls how “I felt safe when I joined RNJ+”.

Cedric and his sister Nadia were orphaned when Cedric was 11. Both parents died from HIV-related illnesses, and Cedric would later find out that he was born with HIV at age 15, and his sister would test positive at age 25.

Prevention of parent-to-child transmission services were not available in Burundi until 2002, so Pacifique, Cedric and Nadia are all of a generation where it was not possible for babies to be born HIV-free.

Now themselves at the age where they are pondering their own relationships and families, they are able to plan for positive relationships and parenthood.

Nadia is already trying for her first child. She met husband a year ago. “We are planning to have children – we’d like three.”
Without access to reliable information and access to services young people wouldn’t be able to contemplate parenting children while living positively. Despite prevention of parent-to-child transmission being available since 2002, almost 2000 babies were born with HIV in 2011.

By providing accurate information in a safe environment RNJ+ will surely help to reduce this number. Its staff are living fulfilled healthy lives and helping other young people to do the same, whether it be to plan or prevent pregnancy, to prevent HIV or live positively with HIV.

Link Up is delivered by an international consortium led by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance. Its Linking Organisation in Burundi is Alliance Burundaise Contre le SIDA (ABS), which onward grants to 13 networks and community-based organisations, including RNJ+.