Young South Africans face huge challenges. Unemployment is at a new high, disproportionately affecting the youth with a rate of over 50%. HIV is the second largest cause of death of adolescents globally and the first in Africa. New HIV infections are concentrated in older adolescents and young people, particularly girls and young women. Poverty, lack of opportunity and poor educational outcomes all conspire to create a generation facing some of its toughest challenges. How do we as civil society engage the youth to help them achieve their full potential?

South Africa has the highest number of estimated new infections per week (2,363) among adolescent girls and young women aged 15-24. HIV prevalence is highest among people of reproductive age and is increasing, rather than stabilising. That is just a crazy situation.

There is a lot of work being put in to try and stem this – national strategies and campaigns to engage young women. But the drivers and consequences of HIV and AIDS on young people are complex and multi-faceted. The HIV epidemic has left many families economically vulnerable, stigmatised and struggling to cope. Gender based violence has reached epidemic proportions and disproportionately affects adolescents, dramatically increasing their risk of HIV acquisition. Unemployment and a lack of financial and work skills further complicate issues. Young people are economically vulnerable. Many don’t have basic skills or know how to apply for jobs and access tertiary education.

Despite many gains made in the HIV/AIDS response in the last decade, young people’s access to services continues to lag behind that of adults. We are simply not reaching and engaging the youth.

Using the power of peer education and support is showing positive results in engaging the youth. NACOSA’s Young Women and Girls Programme, funded by the Global Fund, offers a comprehensive package of health, education and support services for young women and adolescent girls that includes in-school peer-education Soul Buddyz clubs, peer support for female learners who are at risk of dropping out of school and Rise Clubs for young women out of school offering life skills and empowerment activities. The aim of the programme is to decrease HIV incidence, teenage pregnancy and gender based violence by increasing retention in school and economic opportunities. The more that young people can be in school, the better. That is the safest place for them to be.

The DREAMS initiative, spearheaded by PEPFAR, also uses peer mentoring to keep young women safe. The goal of DREAMS is to help girls develop into Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe women. According to PEPFAR: “Social isolation, economic disadvantage, discriminatory cultural norms, orphanhood, gender-based violence, and school drop-out all contribute to girls’ vulnerability to HIV.”

The NACOSA Orphans and Vulnerable Children Community Systems Strengthening programme works to strengthen competency in youth, families and communities to maximise their resilience. As part of this programme, the ASPIRES project works with low-income youth infected or affected by HIV and AIDS, mainly between the ages of 14 and 17. Implemented by community organisations supported by NACOSA, the project helps build the sexual and reproductive health knowledge and financial capabilities of youth so that they are empowered to make better choices. It also has groups working on career pathing where mentors work with youth to get them into the right educational stream. There is an employability and entrepreneurship module, helping youth to apply for jobs, build their confidence and explore self-employment options.

With 95% attendance across workshop sessions, the ASPIRES project has inspired the youth in these communities. Peer facilitators report that they feel better equipped to help youth deal with the reality of their poverty in a constructive way through this intervention.

Economic strengthening activities also form part of the Young Women and Girls programme and are starting to see results. These interventions – such as savings clubs, financial capabilities workshops and voucher incentive programmes – can empower young women to take control of their lives, stay in school and make better choices.

For those that fall through the gaps, there should be a good safety net of strong organisations that can pick up those kids. Good organisations to get them motivated and help youth to have aspirations. They need to find a sense of hope.

A lot of young people sit in quiet desperation; they are apathetic because they do not have hope. So if they see there is something out there and they feel that they have the ability to go out there and do it, they will.

South Africa’s young people need skills, opportunities, support, confidence and – most importantly – hope to be able overcome the challenges they face. Our job as civil society is to empower them to access the support they need.

Menaka Jayakody is the National Children and Youth Manager at NACOSA

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