Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation Youth Center

When it comes to HIV/AIDS, Archbishop Desmond Tutu has the goal of eradicating the virus completely. While this outcome is invariably years, if not decades, in the making, the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation seeks to lessen the impact of HIV/AIDS through research, treatment, training, education and prevention.

The Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation Youth Center works to further that aim by providing the young people of Masiphumelele with education about adolescent sexual and reproductive health, HIV prevention, and HIV treatment.

The HIV counselors' office in the youth center courtyard.
Walking through Masiphumelele, I stick out. I'm the subject of questioning glances and choruses of children yelling "umlungu" (white person) while running up to me to hug my legs. The South African township is, to me at least, the most visible remnant of the Apartheid era. Despite the controversial way townships were formed, their history is steeped in the racist 'social engineering' laws of the Apartheid regime that allowed the forced removal of non-whites from their homes, the community bonds and the general atmosphere of the townships I've been in are overwhelmingly positive.

Although I look very out of place walking around Masi and foreigners often hear tales of violence in the townships, I always feel incredibly comfortable and welcome. In fact, most of my favorite days working at the Desmond Tutu Youth Center involved walking around and exploring Masi.

Khulu, Anelisa, and myself, taking a groundie in the streets of Masi.
One thing I enjoyed immensely about working at the youth center was the freedom afforded to us by our supervisors. The main task Megan and I were assigned was writing a literature review for the manager, Dante. Other than that, we basically could pick and choose what we wanted to do on a given day.

Students enjoying free time on the computers.
The literature review we wrote was about positive youth development (PYD), an approach to offering programs to youth. Dante wanted us to specifically research successful implementation of PYD in different countries that integrated adolescent sexual and reproductive health. The purpose of the literature review was to determine whether or not anything had been written about successful PYD programs in South Africa that were integrated with a clinic and health education because Dante is considering writing a paper about the Desmond Tutu Youth Center. While writing the literature review was a positive learning experience, Megan and I both felt a huge sense of relief when we finished writing it and I know both of us learned more about positive youth development that either of us ever thought we would.

Beyond the literature review, Megan and I involved ourselves in as many programs at the youth center as possible. We joined Anelisa a few times as she facilitated girl's club, a weekly session with a group of girls surrounding female health topics. We also helped Buhle and Sphe run tutoring and career guidance workshops in the computer lab.

Another bastion of our time at the youth center was helping Francis, a researcher, organize the data for a study conducted on the acceptability of medical male circumcision. Studies show that complete male circumcision reduces the risk of female to male transmission of HIV by 60% but, many South African males feel cultural and familial pressure to undergo traditional rather than medical circumcision. Traditional circumcision results in higher risk of infection and incomplete circumcision, which does not effectively protect against HIV transmission. The purpose of Francis's study is to determine the attitudes of young men towards traditional and medical male circumcision and thus determine how to best promote medical male circumcision in Masiphumelele and surrounding communities.

Girl's club!
New prevention methods for HIV are constantly being explored and the field of HIV research rightly warrants a lot of attention. If I will take away one observation from my time in Masiphumelele, though, it is the resilience of the community. People are overwhelmingly open and compassionate. The Desmond Tutu Youth Center is raising a new generation of South Africans; a generation that is more open to discussing HIV, practice preventative measures, and less likely to stigmatize those with HIV/AIDS. A lot of work remains to be done and it will take many more generations of educating the youth but I am certain that great strides are being taken towards the Archbishop's dream of eradicating HIV.

Written by Sarah Ragen

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