In the UN’s 2011 World Aids Day Report, Michael Sidibe, the ‘UNAIDS Executive Director’ and ‘UN Under Secretary General’ wrote; “We are on the verge of a significant breakthrough in the AIDS response. The vision of a world with zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination, and zero AIDS-related deaths has captured the imagination of diverse partners, stakeholders and people living with and affected by HIV”.
The report gives some positive statistics that suggest that the fight against HIV infection is slowly being won. For example, in 1990, there were approximately 10 million people who were infected with HIV, and this rose to around 27 million by the turn of the millennium, showing a huge percentage increase, but the rate of increase slowed in the proceeding 10 years, moving to approximately 34 million in 2010. Most significantly, “the number of people dying of AIDS-related causes fell to 1.8 million…in 2010, down from a peak of 2.2 million…in the mid-2000s. A total of 2.5 million deaths have been averted in low- and middle-income countries since 1995 due to antiretroviral therapy being introduced.
However, do these statistics given a realistic snapshot of work on the ground, where real-life cases are dealt with every day? From our work with street children, their families and their communities, street children in Thika typically come from poor and often challenging households in slums, commonly headed by single-mothers who are unable to consistently provide their children with basic survival needs. Extreme urban poverty is the primary driving force behind children leaving school and taking to the streets, but this is often accompanied by other catalysts such as parents and guardians being involved in illicit brewing, caregivers becoming sick, as well as alcohol dependence. These push factors are then combined with pull factors, where peer pressure from older street children, substance abuse (glue) and the presence of food or money through begging or odd jobs mean children, once on the street, can be stuck in what looks like a closed cycle, and can act as barriers to school and home re-entry.
Street children caught in this cycle are increasingly at risk from sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, due to the culture of having multiple sexual partners, low rates of condom use, as well as children often having sex whilst under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Due to these health risks, street life has significant health consequences. Street children are often a hidden statistic, a portion of the population that do not have the same access to education, to medical and social services, that other groups have, and their lifestyle and living environment see HIV/Aids, as well as respiratory and skin diseases, as the leading causes of mortality among street children.
On World’s AIDS Day 2012, the theme is “Working Together for an AIDS-Free Generation”, and we continue to partnership through education as the long term key to eliminating the problem of children living on the streets and thereby limiting the vulnerability of this oft neglected population to these situations that can lead to infection. Part of the work AfCiC does, and particularly our Children Lead the Way programme, is to educate children and young people in our schools, communities, homes and, unfortunately, on the street, about the dangers of contracting HIV/AIDS, as well as the practicalities about how it can be caught. There are many ways in which we do this; we speak to the children in informal meetings as they attend our outreach centre; we go to local schools to teach children about their rights, and how sexual abuse, one of the main routes through which the virus is passed on, can be avoided; and we run workshops around the Thika municipality to bring teachers, village elders and community leaders together to empower people in responsibility to pass on the basic messages about HIV/AIDS.
On the 21st November, less than two weeks ago, AfCiC brought together over 100 children, teachers and facilitators to build on this work in a day at Kisiwa Primary school, in an inter-school Child Rights Club completion involving 7 local schools and culminating in a frenzy of award giving and celebration. The competition, which included children competing in everything from dancing, poetry, fashion modelling, public speaking, essay writing, singing and drawing, was used to encourage children to think about HIV/AIDS, and what influence they might have amongst their peers to spread the messages they have received. In particular, the essay writing competition asked children to write about child labour, and how exposure to informal work at a very young age can lead children to be in situations that are more susceptible to catching HIV. It was shocking for some, particular those not from the local culture, to read these essays and consider just how much exposure children in Thika have to HIV, and how they have been individually affected by it. The essay that was judged to have won the competition combined practical understanding of the virus with some vivid descriptions of its devastating effects, but was one of many written by children between 10 and 13, that provided a sobering reminder of the realities that children are tragically exposed to in Thika and beyond.
As well as the essays, the public speaking competition also tasked a different set of children with presenting their case on how children can play a key part in eradicating, or at least reducing, the stigmatisation and discrimination that comes wrapped up with the HIV virus, and what small things they can do to help. Again, the clarity and substance to these presentations, which they were asked to present having been given 30 minutes’ notice of the topic, was incredible, and all the children who were involved in this particular task, and the competition as a whole, should be so proud of their efforts. We put together a short video about the day which shows some of the talents on show, and you can see that here.
In a small way, the whole day again raised awareness of the dangers involved with HIV/AIDS. On the 1st December itself, AfCiC, with support from Save the Children International, is partnering with the Ministry of Health and the Constituency Aids Committees in 4 districts, supporting celebrations and awareness events in Thika (Mama Ngina Gardens), Gatundu South (Igegania sub-district hospital) and Gatanga (Gatura Health Centre), and all these activities together go towards promoting the pledge made by Michael Sidibe above involving ‘zero discrimination’. Whilst reducing the amount of new infections is paramount, particularly in neglected populations such as street children, helping those who already have the virus, as well as their friends and family, is key to reducing the stigma and discrimination attached to the virus that the boys and girls so eloquently described by children last week.