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WORLD AIDS DAY: Herdboys at Risk to Contract HIV

Letuka Mahe

MASERU, Dec 1 2009 (IPS) - In the scorching heat of the midday summer sun, a teenage boy’s sharp voice can be heard vividly as he continuously summons his cattle. Glad in his shabby-looking rag that used to be a blanket and black gumboots, the only thing that occupies his mind is his herd, his everyday companions, nothing else.

Herdboys in Lesotho are at risk to contract HIV.  Credit: Letuka Mahe/IPS

Herdboys in Lesotho are at risk to contract HIV. Credit: Letuka Mahe/IPS

His name is Motlalepula Mohapinyane, 16, of Ha Khoabane, Thaba Bosiu, some 40 kilometres east of the capital Maseru. He has been herding his father’s cattle since 2007 after he dropped out of Form B (Grade 8) at Letsie High in Thaba Bosiu. He knows a little about HIV/AIDS, as well as voluntary counselling and testing (VCT). But he has not had an opportunity to go to the village clinic to get tested.

“I haven’t had time to go because of the animals, and my father will not allow me to leave the herd. Maybe I will go when I am a grown-up,” he quickly adds. He says he has briefly been to one or two HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns organised by the clinic, and learned a little about condom usage as a means of prevention against HIV infection. “I only use a condom if I am lucky to possess one,” he chuckles shyly.

Herdboys in Lesotho are one of a few groups of society that have been marginalised by the speeding wheels of the democratic progress. Their understanding of HIV/AIDS is quite limited, and to them it is like any other virus. Their lack of education about the disease places them at a greater risk of contracting HIV.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund data, over 90 percent of Basotho know about AIDS, yet out of that only 25 percent know comprehensively about the virus. The severity of young people’s vulnerability to HIV infection is evidenced by the upsetting data. Sexual activity starts as early as 12 and 14 years for males and females respectively. Only 10 percent of males and six percent of females use condoms when they have sex for the first time.

And it is not easy to find data on herdboys at the clinics regarding their VCT attendance. “From the way our registration books have been designed, it is not easy to categorise our patients by their professions, but only by their gender, age and their villages,” says the head clinician at the Thaba Bosiu Red Cross clinic, Lihamang Maebo.

Maebo says they can mostly identify students in their uniforms, otherwise they categorise them as the youth. Another factor that makes it difficult to identify herdboys, she says, is that more female youth go for testing than their male counterparts.

However, the nursing sister believes that at the current rate the youth appear to want to know their status, AIDS education seems to have trickled down even to the most marginalised groups like the herdboys.

The National AIDS Commission (NAC) says development of a strategic plan for the empowerment of herdboys is underway. “We are advocating for herdboys’ clubs, and a study to collect data on this category of youth, and to find out how many of them are females, is still underway,” said NAC officer ‘Machale Sepitla.

She said the study is aimed at recognising the vulnerability of the herdboys, establishing the magnitude of the problem as well as to have evidence-based information relating to HIV/AIDS.

Chairperson of the Lesotho Herdboys Association (also known as Monna-ka-khomo), Motlalentoa Hlehlisi, also conforms to NAC’s statement: “We have included HIV/AIDS into our working programmes so as to equip herdboys with knowledge on those issues. And at the moment we are in the process of drafting a policy and a strategic plan for herdboys on HIV/AIDS with the help of NAC,” he says.

The government of Lesotho is also on the process of addressing such youth problems as this faced by Mohapinyane. According to the Principal Secretary of the ministry of gender, youth, sports and recreation, Makalo Theko, a National Youth Council is due to establish office in March 2010.

The council’s resolutions will be binding on government, and it will be charged with implementing recommendations contained in the Youth Policy, and looking into issues and challenges facing the youth such as: HIV/AIDS; unemployment; high levels of illiteracy and drug abuse.

It is expected that the council will help facilitate the finalisation of a national youth policy that has seen years of delays in the shelves of the technocrats. The council is expected to bring hope to these marginalised youth as they will also be directly involved in its administration.

All these blueprint developments, however, are a myth to members of most groups of society such as Mohapinyane, who remains oblivious of the risks he is currently facing pertaining HIV/AIDS.

“I just want to be a grown-up, and with these cattle, I will get married and have many children too, like my father.”

And with that he throws a rock at a stray from the herd, swears so loud it is ear-shattering, before hastening after his cattle.

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