By Stephanie Vizi
Seventy-five grade seven girls from across Lesotho gathered at Help Lesotho’s Hlotse Centre for a week-long leadership camp last June. The girls took part in life skills trainings, which focused on preventing teenage pregnancy, rape and HIV/AIDS.
Help Lesotho staff facilitated sessions on the most critical issues facing young girls in Lesotho, such as rape, the lure of sugar daddies (rich older men who lavish gifts on a young woman in return for her company or sexual favours) and gender inequality.
After days of trainings, the girls demonstrated their new knowledge through self-written skits, poetry and songs. They showed the consequences of inappropriate sexual relationships (STIs, HIV and early pregnancy) while exuding confidence and a newfound sense of purpose to spread the lessons of gender equality to girls back home in their villages. A daily question and answer period provided a chance for the girls to ask pressing questions anonymously to seasoned Help Lesotho experts.
Spreading the Message
A 24-year-old HIV-positive mother was invited to share about her experience with gender-based violence, early pregnancy and living with HIV. The girls hung on her every word because of the rarity of her honesty in Basotho society.
Myths that foster gender inequity and the spread of HIV still flourish in rural Lesotho. Girls and women are disproportionately impacted by unhealthy stereotypes that often lead to severe consequences including sexual violence, abuse, and a severe lack of opportunities.
The girls bounced around Help Lesotho with their new friends, while wearing new drawstring backpacks, which read: BE BRAVE Sugar Daddies are baby makers ENOUGH with Teenage Pregnancy.
Based on GDP, Lesotho’s poverty level ranks number 149 out of 184 countries. Women are disproportionately affected by poverty, leading to lack of education, human trafficking, prostitution, and depression; 61 percent of women in Lesotho have experienced some form of sexual violence. Patriarchal values and norms create power imbalances and limit women’s rights; stereotyping of girls and women as ‘lesser’ leads to early marriage, lack of land rights and inability to be decision-makers and community leaders.
Establishing gender equity is essential to creating sustainable social change. Despite significant legislative changes promoting gender equity and the rights of women, cultural barriers and limited enforcement continue to limit the implementation of these changes at the family, peer and community levels.
Help Lesotho provides a safe, non-judgmental environment to question and openly discuss issues related to gender equity in an atmosphere of psychosocial support to foster understanding.
Ending the Epidemic
Near the end of the week, Help Lesotho provided HIV testing for the girls with the help of local organizations. The girls were encouraged to know their statuses. Many of the girls were nervous, but one by one they took their lives into their own hands and got tested.
A group of girls lingered hesitantly around the testing room. They said they were too scared to test. After a conversation about how it was their responsibility to keep themselves healthy and prevent future infections – a light switched on in each of their young minds.
Women in Lesotho are more vulnerable to contracting HIV—in the 15-24 age bracket, 1/4 of men and half of young women have HIV or AIDS.
HIV stigma is ever-present in Lesotho and those infected are often ashamed and keep it a secret, which continues the spread of HIV. Lesotho has the world’s second highest rate of HIV/AIDS. With an infection rate of nearly 24 percent, nearly a quarter of the population is infected, and everyone is affected.
We cheered as each brave camper entered and exited the testing room – it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen: girls empowered to take care of themselves in a society that does not encourage them to do so.
Help Lesotho is committed to preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS through education. We equip beneficiaries with the knowledge they need to stay HIV-negative or live a healthy HIV-positive life. Help Lesotho challenges program participants to understand the consequences of stigma and discrimination in their communities. By breaking down stereotypes, challenging unhealthy behaviours and dispelling myths which contribute to the spread of this disease, Help Lesotho’s programs are a long-term strategy in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Girls’ Camp ended with a candlelight vigil in honour of the victims of teenage pregnancy and rape in Lesotho. As each candle was lit, the girl-leaders’ spirits were lifted with hope for a new Lesotho free of sexual violence and gender inequality.