In late November, two groups of highly stigmatized and often voiceless members of Basotho society marched for change.
On Nov. 26, a group of over 100 shepherds took to the streets of Butha Buthe, a rural district in Lesotho, to speak out about gender based violence.
The shepherds or herd boys as they are more commonly known, were part of Help Lesotho’s Herd Boy Program, a six-month training which empowers the young men with the knowledge and coping strategies for positive behavioral and social change, including gender equity awareness and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.
The advocacy march aimed to raise awareness about violence against women and girls. Gender based violence is a growing issue in Lesotho, but the exact number of cases is unknown because victims are often fearful of coming forward. Domestic violence is a commonly accepted practice.
The herd boys held signs high in the air, which read: “Stop woman and child abuse” and “Women have the right to say no to sex”.
One young man kept stopping to educate passersby about the message, while community members, friends, council members and the village chief marched alongside the herd boys to show support for their cause.
History of Herd Boys
Traditionally, a Mosotho man’s wealth was measured by the number of sheep and cattle he owned, so taking care of the animals was a highly respected and coveted position.
Today, young boys are taken out of school to herd cattle in order to support their families and as men, herd boys are highly stigmatized members of Basotho society and are often blamed for crimes, including damaging crops, vandalism and theft. They are also accused of spreading HIV, having multiple concurrent sexual partners and also committing acts of sexual violence, including rape.
Help Lesotho empowers this disadvantaged group of often uneducated young men to become positive role models for their peers and to change the environment of gender based violence and HIV/AIDS found in Lesotho.
The march broke down barriers between the stigma of socially deviant herd boys and their communities. The young men marched for change, acceptance and a brighter future for Lesotho.
Mothers March to End Maternal Mortality
The following day, a group of over 100 young mothers assembled in the district of Leribe, in the lowlands of Lesotho, to raise awareness about maternal mortality.
These young women belong to Help Lesotho’s Young Mother Program. Help Lesotho partners with local chiefs to identify vulnerable young mothers to attend a six-month program with includes: monthly trainings on life skills, maternal and child health, and HIV/AIDS prevention. The young women also meet at weekly support group in their respective villages, receive monthly one-on-one visits from Help Lesotho staff and are invited to a weekly arts and crafts session.
The women marched from Help Lesotho’s Hlotse Centre in Leribe to the expectant mothers ward at the local hospital. The young mothers spoke to women waiting to give birth about preventing maternal mortality.
One young mother addressed the crowd and cautioned the mothers to attend pre-and post-natal appointments to avoid complications. She also encouraged hospital staff to work hard to create a home away from home for expectant mothers and to do everything in their power to ensure babies and mothers are happy and healthy
Maternal Mortality on the Rise
The maternal mortality rate in Lesotho has been on the rise due to a lack of sexual health education, poor health care and HIV/AIDS complications. According to UNDP Lesotho, maternal mortality has been increasing steadily since 1990. Lesotho’s Maternal Mortality Rate is among the highest in the world at 1,155 deaths per 100,000 live births. According to the UNDP report, as of 2013, one out of 32 women in Lesotho dies of pregnancy and birth complications. Most of maternal deaths can be prevented by access to quality health care.
According to Medicines San Frontiers, more than 50 percent of those deaths are attributed to HIV-related complications. The government of Lesotho has set a target to reduce maternal deaths to 300 deaths per 100,000 live births by 2015, and is working on an accelerated action plan to reach the far-off Millennium Development Goal for Maternal Health.
Help Lesotho also runs Young Mother Programs in two other rural Lesotho towns, Pitseng and Thaba Tseka. These groups also marched to their local hospitals to educate their communities on preventing maternal mortality.
Help Lesotho is committed to building a generation of young people as agents of change. Through education, training, and reiterative support, Help Lesotho’s compassionate grass-roots approach changes behavior and squarely addresses HIV/AIDS and gender equity with the holistic, life-transforming programs youth need to positively impact their communities.