SHIKANDA KAWANGA, Lusaka
WHEN 18-year-old Hilda Zimba (not real name) began falling ill, she had no idea that her condition could be life-threatening.
An orphan and doing her 11th grade at a community school in Chawama township, Hilda was constantly sick and often missed classes.
“I would suffer from headaches, abdominal pains and strange skin infections, among others. I frequented various health centres and sometimes just stayed home thinking that these were normal conditions which would go away,” Hilda narrates.
And whenever Hilda was well, she was actively involved in the Stay Alive Club at School which would later play a pivotal role in helping her to discover what was behind the persistent illness that plagued her young life.
The club, which is supported by Latkings Outreach Programme (LOP) and funded by Save the Children Sweden has been sensitising pupils on HIV and AIDS and the importance of knowing one’s status.
It was then that she took the bold step to get tested for HIV.
“After I was sensitised about HIV, I got a consent form, which I took to my aunt, who authorised that I get tested, after which I was found to be HIV-positive,” she explains.
The results shocked her and her aunty as they both took her ailments to be mere sicknesses not associated with HIV.
It was difficult for Hilda to accept her status, but once she was counselled and put on treatment, her health and outlook on life changed for the better.
Whereas previously she would stay away from school to avoid stigmatisation, this time she is confident to attend classes without any shame.
“I have told my friends about my status. I would rather my friends don’t gossip about me, that’s why I disclosed my status. I have so much praise for LOP because without it, I would not have been courageous to get tested and go public about my health,” she says.
Another grade 11 pupil at the same school and also a member of the Stay Alive Club, Jonas Phiri (not real name), is HIV-negative but says he became sexually active at the age of 12.
Jonas says his behaviour has however changed after receiving sexual reproductive health (SRH) education from the club.
He says the club has been instrumental in sharing the knowledge with young people in the community, most of who are already engaging in sexual activities.
During a recently held dialogue forum on SRH, youths drawn from various communities led by LOP called on Government to institute interventions to help young people have easy access to SRH centres.
17-year-old Jacqueline Chanda, who spoke on behalf of the youths, urged Government to consider empowering more health workers with SRH skills.
Jaqueline believes this will help address the hindrances young people face when accessing services at health centres.
She is concerned that the absence of youth-friendly spaces has resulted in limited access to SRH services among adolescents.
“The fact that there are few clinics that offer the services means SRH for children and adolescents is not prioritised,” she said.
Jacqueline has however commended Government’s commitment towards the development of the 2017- 2021 national adolescent health strategy aimed at improving SRH and rights among young ones.
She has therefore urged Government, through the Ministry of Health, to establish a pilot site of ideal youth-friendly spaces in Lusaka to enable other health centres to learn and replicate its operations.
Jacqueline is optimistic that this will empower young people with a platform to share SRH information thereby encouraging them to be active participants in the prevention of new HIV infections, unplanned pregnancies and child marriages, and to also learn more about family planning methods and their benefits.
Jacqueline also proposed that the district medical office should consider involving young people in budgeting for adolescents’ SRH-related activities, especially-youth friendly spaces as youths know best what concerns them.
Additionally, LOP executive director Bernard Miti said his organisation’s desire is to see that young people are given all the support they need.
Mr Miti believes that SRH is a catalyst for reducing health-related complications such as HIV and unwanted pregnancies.
“We want to see how we can inspire and support young people. What we want to see are adolescents that will be able to craft their own strategies as they are custodians of change,” he said.
Meanwhile, Save the Children Sweden – Zambia country director Willbroad Kampolwa says the organisation has been sponsoring SRH programmes to empower adolescents with information that can help them handle any SRH issue.
Mr Kampolwa says improved access to SRH information helps adolescents, especially girls, to lead productive lives free from unplanned pregnancies and early marriages and also lead to a brighter future.
He notes that actualising and enhancing SRH services will significantly reduce the country’s burden of HIV prevalence, maternal mortality rate and abortion-related complications among young people, which in turn accounts for a reduced health care budget.
Government is alive to these facts and has implemented various adolescent health activities countrywide.
Lusaka Province adolescent health focal person Inutu Mbangweta said the Ministry of Health has established adolescent health spaces at all health centres, and that more health personnel will soon be trained in SRH.
SHIKANDA KAWANGA, Lusaka