‘When I grow up I want to be a lawyer’, one boy said. ‘I want to be a doctor’, another said. One secondary school student cited a beautiful poem titled, ‘You’ve got Gold’ to his friends, while others sang songs and showcased their acting talents through drama. There were lessons shared about adherence to ART treatment; some kids shared challenges they face in trying to adhere to treatment, while others offered possible solutions. One of the mentors gave a talk on the importance of adhering to treatment and how the kids in various situations/settings can manage to adhere to treatment. After the lessons I was reminded of how old I am getting when we played sports, and I couldn’t keep up with these kids. There I was gasping for air while they seemed not to run out of energy. Of course not all of them were able to play as much, but they all were participating in the activities in one way or the other. I was so wasted after that, but the day wouldn’t have ended any better than entertaining the kids with my ‘amazing’ skills in skipping rope games. I’m sure they were wondering to themselves, ‘what is wrong with her?’.
This is Teen Club. It is an initiative by Dignitas International in Zomba, Malawi, modeled after Baylor Children’s Clinic, in response to the gap that was identified in HIV related service provision that was deemed not child/teen friendly. Considering the serious nature of HIV&AIDS pandemic, one should not assume that the young ones understand and can easily accept their status and adhere to treatment without adequate counseling and support. It was discovered that young people either were born positive or got infected in their youth are defaulting from treatment due to various reasons, but mainly because the HIV related services are not child friendly and thereby not able to detect and address the challenges that HIV positive young people on treatment are facing. Some young people who have been on treatment without being told why, but end up finding out for themselves, become resentful and resistant to adhere to the treatment. Other young people who have been told the truth about their status and are fully aware of their situation, may not adhere to the treatment due to fear of stigma either at home, in their community or at school (especially boarding school). In addition to these reasons, there are others who simply feel tired of taking the drugs all the time and as such default from taking them as prescribed. So without proper social structures to support and monitor them, these young people that are not adhering to treatment may develop resistance to the treatment altogether and in the end fail to realize their goals.
It is for these reasons that Teen Club Zomba is working with around 300 young people (between 10-20 years old) to address these challenges. Just like the world recognizes young people as leaders of tomorrow, Teen Club also recognizes that these leaders have dreams and are visionary. However, they lack the necessary support, counsel and platform that can nurture them to achieve these dreams. The club has therefore created a safe environment for them where they can be open about their situation, share their aspirations as well as day-to day challenges, address issues of stigma and discrimination, receive clinical treatment, receive psycho-social counselling and support to help them understand their situation better. It deals with prevention, importance of adherence to treatment, and disclosure of status to significant others, among other issues. So Teen Club is there to address the challenges that these young people who are HIV infected and on treatment are facing so that they are retained into care and as a result, are able to grow, reach their dreams and become influential leaders.
Being a part of this initiative that is supporting an amazing group of young dreamers has made me realize the necessity of having more child-friendly heath-care services, especially on critical issues such as HIV & AIDS. Young people are the sole heartbeat of a nation, therefore they need all the necessary support and care for them to blossom into the kind of world changers the world needs. The more they are able to adhere to treatment, the longer they can lead healthy and strong lives. I am grateful to have been a small part in contributing to the future of these amazing, enthusiastic and visionary young people!