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Getting youth on the move

Young South Africans face huge challenges this June 16th. Unemployment is at a new high, disproportionately affecting the youth with a rate of over 50%. Young people, particularly young women, are also carrying the burden of HIV and AIDS. 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? 

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. 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’s just a crazy number and situation,” says Menaka Jayakody, NACOSA’s National Children and Youth Manager. “There’s 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 in the country 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,” continues Jayakody.

The new National Strategic Plan on HIV, TB and STIs 2017-2022 (NSP) asserts that no section of our society will be “left behind” by efforts to combat HIV, TB and STIs and lists children and adolescent girls and young women as vulnerable populations. But 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.


World Health Organisation and Department of Health guidance on HIV self-testing lists youth as one of the key groups currently falling through the testing-treatment gap. Not enough of them are testing and fewer are accessing treatment if they test positive. Both institutions see HIV self-testing as a way to bridge this gap and reach the UNAIDS 90-90-90 targets.

One of the first demonstration projects of HIV self-testing (HIVST) in South Africa, conducted by the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation, is evaluating community-based “assisted” HIVST among young people in Cape Town. They report high uptake among first time testers, high acceptability and preference for HIVST compared to standard HIV testing services.

Could this be a key tool in getting young people to access services?


Using the power of peer education and support, is also 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,” says Jayakody. “That’s the safest place for them to be.”

The DREAMS initiative, spearheaded by PEPFAR, also uses the power of 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.”


NACOSA’s Vulnerable Children and Youth 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,” continues Jayakody, “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.

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