Asanda Nhlangulela is 14 years old and in grade nine at Kwathathani High School in the Ufafa Valley, KwaZulu-Natal. She lives with her grandparents, uncle and younger brother. Her mother died in an accident and she does not know her father. An average day for Asanda is busy. She wakes up early and tidies the house. After washing and making breakfast for the family, she leaves for the 30 minute walk to school. When she gets home in the afternoon she does the housework and cooks supper. Then it’s homework and bed time.
Education is one of the key weapons in the fight to end HIV and AIDS. The longer a young person stays on in education, the better choices they make and the less likely they are to become infected with HIV. For South Africa’s young women and girls, who are up to eight times more likely to become HIV positive than their male peers, staying on in school can be life-saving. The Keeping Girls in School programme, run by MIET Africa with support from NACOSA’s Global Fund programme, works with girls in grades seven to nine (when school dropout and HIV risk rates are highest) in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga.
Asanda loves school. English is her favourite subject and she wants to be a lawyer: "Sometimes I see that people don't respect each other or the rules. I want South Africans to all be served equally". She likes having the opportunity to do homework with a tutor at school. "When I was really young, I hated school. It was so boring. Now, I love it. I wish that we could come here on the weekends!" Asanda sees "no good reason to leave school before matric.”
"This programme has taught me to stand up for myself. I know to confide in people that I trust. And I know that I mustn't compare myself to others. I am my own role model!"
Nompilo Hlengwe is a peer group trainer at Kwathathani High School and Sibongile Sondi is her supervisor. Nompilo lives nearby and has been working with the programme for two years. "I want to help my community and help the youth," she explains.
Sibongile used to work as a health promoter and because of this background, she incorporates health education into her work.
"In my community, children are under a lot of stress, especially the girls. There is often an unhealthy home background and many are orphans, live with their extended family, and experience alcoholism and abuse within the home environment. Often, they're the primary caregivers in a home. I have so much respect for them."
Sibongile encourages the girls she works with by giving them certificates of excellence for homework, neatness, classwork and friendliness.
In poor, rural areas like the Ufafa Valley in Sisonke District, gender roles are entrenched. Girls are expected to stay at home and cook and clean, or look after elderly family members, while boys are encouraged to go to school. There are more than double the number of boys in school than girls. Giving girls the confidence to stay in school with a nurturing school environment and afterschool support is vital.
Sibongile is concerned that there are still many girls who stay at home and hopes that they realise that they will be warmly greeted at school. “I just want to tell them, ‘if you like school, just come. The gates are always open," she says.
“When you get girls together and talk with them, they begin to see value in themselves".
The relationships that they develop with the girls are multi-layered. "We're everyone!" They fill many roles – a sister, a mom, an aunt, a teacher but, perhaps most importantly, a friend. Sibongile and Nompilo care deeply about these girls: "We are there for them. These vulnerable girls now have someone to talk to," says Sibongile. "It's so good to see my girls achieving!" says Nompilo.
The Young Women and Girls programme worked with organisations to keep girls in school to reduce their risk of unwanted pregnancy and HIV. Operating in and out of schools, the programme used peer group trainers to provide tutoring, support networks for promoting sexual and reproductive health and help to access services, career guidance and health education.