Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Poverty & SDGs

HEALTH-SWAZILAND: A Message to Teenagers – Take Charge!

James Hall

MBABANE, Jul 15 2005 (IPS) - A new advertising campaign aimed at curtailing teenage HIV rates by promoting abstinence is using a combination of traditional and modern values in its appeal to Swazi youth.

The SiSwati phrase "Ngoba likusasa nelami" – "Because tomorrow is mine" – has been chosen as the theme of the initiative, which got underway with full-page advertisements in Swaziland’s two national newspapers.

Because of the limited circulation of the Swazi press, radio adverts are also running. In addition, billboards bearing the images and messages used in the printed adverts began appearing this month.

The pictures in question show young people bathed in the golden hues of sunrise, with quotes such as "I want to finish my education. Sex can wait." (used with the image of a girl holding schoolbooks). Another advert shows a boy with a determined gaze, saying "I am thinking of my future. Sex can wait."

"We are telling teenagers to take charge of their own lives, for the sake of both their own personal survival and for the future of the Swazi nation," creative designer Tshepo Motlhala, who developed the campaign for the National Emergency Response Committee on HIV/AIDS (NERCHA), told IPS.

Founded to distribute money obtained from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, government and private donors, NERCHA is increasingly playing the role of national coordinator for the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) it helps fund.

"The new ad campaign aimed at young people is the first time all health stakeholders came together on a single project. From initial meetings with government and NGOs, to research with teenagers, to coming up with the images and message of the campaign, all parties were involved," NERCHA’s communications director, Nana Mdluli, said in an interview with IPS.

"In the ads, we are showing young people who have taken charge of their lives. Because of AIDS, sex can be deadly. Abstinence can assure a future for teenagers."

Swaziland currently has the unenviable distinction of having the world’s highest AIDS infection rate, with the latest official figures showing 42,6 percent of sexually active adults to be HIV-positive. However, the infection rate amongst teenagers, currently 15 percent for sexually-active young people 18 years and younger, is stable, and may be diminishing.

"This is the first generation that has lived through the devastation of AIDS. They have buried friends and family members. They know they must protect themselves," says Alan Brody, country representative for the United Nations Children’s Fund.

The campaign seeks to help young people overcome pressures to have sex with peers and older partners, like "sugar daddies" and "sweet mamas" who seduce teenagers with money and gifts.

"It is a cultural departure in a society where children have always been told what to do by family and authorities, and not to think too much for themselves," says Agnes Kunene, a nurse and youth counsellor in the central commercial town of Manzini.

"But youngsters have to stand up for themselves – particularly girls. They must avoid sex for their survival," she adds. "The message from earlier campaigns to use condoms is still valid, but condom usage is erratic. Abstinence, as hard as it can be for a teenager, is the only way."

Nonetheless, traditional values still receive a mention, with teenagers being reminded that by securing their own health, they will be making an important contribution to the Swazi nation.

"The campaign’s theme of ‘me first’ is a cultural departure, but we also talk about what is at stake for the future of the country," said Motlhala.

"The teenagers in the ads are wearing Western clothes, but the language of the ads is SiSwati. We are saying there is nothing wrong with wearing Western clothes as long as you know where you’re coming from," he added.

Plans are afoot to extend the campaign beyond the traditional outlets of radio, print ads, billboards and posters. The Ministry of Education is also getting involved by sponsoring a play that dramatises the importance of delaying sex.

A hundred secondary schools will host the travelling acting troupe that is to perform the play, beginning next month. After the performance, counsellors will engage the audience in discussions.

Daniel Halperin, a behaviour change expert from the United States Agency for International Development, says that previous AIDS campaigns managed to raise awareness of the pandemic in Swaziland – but did not alter behaviour.

"Even if we were to be highly successful in expanding access to treatment and care, much of the Swazi population is doomed to a future of chronic disease unless the wave of new infections is curtailed," he notes.

"The new campaign is an important means of telling people that to continue having multiple sexual partners (means) you not only kill your future – it will kill the future of the entire Swazi nation."

But will this latest initiative succeed where others have failed? An informal survey by IPS of young people passing a campaign billboard elicited positive results.

"They dress nice. It’s a shame to look that good and die of AIDS," said Janice, a high school student.

Another girl, Ncamsile, noted: "I like the message because it says I am also a Swazi, and I have a responsibility to my people."

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