Nickey Katlego Gwala (13) and Diana Nyangoere (15) are two friends living in Finetown, South of Johannesburg. They are happy and optimistic about their future – but haven’t always been. They say that visiting the Zenzele Counselling Project centre was a turning point in their lives.
“I felt very angry inside before I came here. I used to disobey my parents and often lost my temper. I dated older guys because I thought it was cool” says Nickey.
The Zenzele Counselling Project seeks to reduce the risk of HIV infection among young people by focusing on behavioural change.
It provides counselling, support groups, a space for teenagers to bond and most importantly – a place for honest conversations and mentorship.
“When I arrived here from Zim I had no friends and felt like everyone judged me. I didn’t know who to ask hard questions to. But I’ve made friends here - it’s different from school. We feel like we can tell each other and our mentors anything” says Diana.
The ‘blesser’ trend
Young women are the focus for these programmes because they are especially vulnerable to HIV infection. A UN report launched ahead of World AIDS Day shows young women in South Africa are acquiring HIV from adult men, who tend to get infected by HIV after transitioning into adulthood. There is a clear window of opportunity to work with young women in their vulnerable teenage and young adult years to minimise the risk of infection, and the Zenzele Counselling Project works as vigorously as possible within this context.
Much of their work involves confidence-building and equipping the girls to deal with the emotional challenges that characterise the teenage years. These issues, faced by teenagers everywhere, are often compounded and made harder for young people from disadvantaged and impoverished backgrounds.
“Their family structures are broken – they come from single-headed households, often experience domestic violence, and have relatives affected by HIV/Aids” says Sisanda Qobo, social worker from HIVSA. “They don’t have money, but like all teenagers, want to buy certain things – and that’s why it becomes so easy for them to fall into toxic relationships, especially with ‘sugar daddies’ or ‘blessers’”.
Helping teenage girls understand why these relationships are unhealthy and getting them to feel secure enough not to see these relationships as their only option is critical.
Independence through entrepreneurship
One of the things Zenzele encourages young girls to think about is how to make their own money. And for Nickey and Diana, this advice has changed their outlook on life.
“We’ve both started our own businesses to make extra money – I sell makeup and Diana sells caps. We started out with R40, which we used to buy a few things in Johannesburg. We sold that and went back for more stock. You only need a few rands to start something” Nickey boasts. “We don’t want to have to rely on older boyfriends for things like airtime and clothes”.
“Girls sometimes don’t want to date guys their own age because they don’t have money, just like us. But now we don’t need to think about that. And I don’t need to keep asking my sister for airtime!”, says Diana.
We need more than education
Initiatives like the Zenzele Counselling Project show how far we’ve come in the fight against HIV/Aids over the decades. Ask the average person what can be done to prevent new infections or teen pregnancy and they’ll likely say ‘more education’.
But that’s not enough, and the Zenzele project operates with this knowledge at its heart.
“These days, most people in the community understand how HIV/Aids is contracted. They know about condoms and where to find them. They’ve seen the awareness and education campaigns. But many still don’t practice safe sex”, explains social worker Sisanda Qobo from HIVSA.
“This is because the journey to changing behaviour involves much more than education. The decision to use a condom or abstain from sex starts a long way back and involves how confident and secure you feel about yourself”.
Zenele provides a much-needed space for conversation, understanding and emotional support in a community where teenagers face enormous day-to-challenges.
“These are teenagers. They feel social anxiety, insecurity, the need for acceptance and love from someone. They have trouble dealing with their emotions and are naturally rebellious. If we are going to make a difference, we have to understand their mindset” says Qobo.
How to support organisations like Zenzele
Recently, there has been a big drive across South Africa from many different organisations to donate sanitary pads to school girls – who on average miss 100 days of school per year because of menstruation. In addition to preventing girls from missing school, sanitary products and other hygiene products are especially important during the teenage years when teens naturally feel self-conscious.
Says Joanne Van Der Walt, Sage Foundation manager for Africa at Sage, “This is an issue close to our heart - Sage Foundation supports Women and the Youth. We can’t talk about women empowerment unless we’re meeting these basic needs. That’s why we regularly supply ‘Dignity Packs’ to Zenzele that include sanitary pads, but also basic toiletries like toothpaste, deodorant and soap. This World Aids Day, I’d encourage ordinary South Africans as well as private organisations to think about the small things they take for granted, and find organisations like Zenzele who they can support with product donations”.