Preventing HIV through football
All along, 20-year-old Gift Chazama has had the phobia for Voluntary Medical Male Circumcision (VMMC).
“I became uncomfortable each time someone talked about it. What made me more restless is the fact that this is one way of preventing HIV infection,” the Blantyre-based BCA resident admits.
He says most of his peers are fond of having unprotected sex or multiple and concurrent sexual relationships. Chazama has been under pressure to follow suit to move with the time.
“I have always known that ‘sex’ is a gateway to contracting HIV and I have had a big debate within me. Still more, the pressure has been much considering my status as a footballer,” he discloses, without telling much whether he succumbed to such pressure.
Chazama—who is a player for BCA-based Chilumba Stars—says he was even disadvantaged because he lacked information about sexual reproductive health, including that of HIV and other Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs).
“Most ladies like to associate with footballers because of the fame that go with it. This gives us the temptation to have multiple and concurrent sexual partners and being at the risk of contracting HIV and other STIs,” he says.
Coach for Chilumba Stars, Griffin Spencer, says most young and up-and-coming footballers have contracted HIV while others have died due to the excitement of being famous.
“I have noted that the ‘victims’ were not empowered with enough information to make informed decisions about their sexuality,” he says.
Spencer also reveals that there are lots of sexual activities taking place in Bangwe, another thing that is also encouraging early sex debut among the youth.
“Most youths are idol and unemployed, which forces them to resort to alcohol abuse. They end up sleeping with commercial sex workers, thereby increasing chances of contracting HIV,” Spencer, who leads a team of Under-25 players says.
According to a leaflet on young people authored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), less than 40 per cent of young people have adequate knowledge on preventing HIV in east and southern African regions.
It points out that, across the region, lack of knowledge also contributes to high rates of unintended pregnancy, sexual abuse, HIV and other STIs.
The leaflet says information that young people receive is often embellished with taboos and misinformation. The Malawi Demographic and Health Survey (MDHS) of 2015/16 says knowledge of HIV transmission enables people to avoid HIV infection.
It further says this is, especially true for young people, who are often at greater risk because they may have shorter relationships with more partners or engage in other risky behaviours.
MDHS highlights that, in Malawi, 41 out of every 100 young women and 44 out of every 100 young men have comprehensive knowledge on HIV. This includes knowing that consistent use of condoms during sexual intercourse and having just one uninfected faithful partner can reduce the chance of getting HIV.
Youths of Bangwe and other surrounding townships in Blantyre have had HIV knowledge gaps. They have lived their lives knowing about the existence of HIV and Aids, but did not know much about preventive methods and issues to do with risky behaviours.
It seems traditional methods of disseminating information missed out on how to reach out to them.
This is one reason Umunthu Foundation, with funding from Avert and coordination with Tackle Africa introduced HIV prevention interventions through a football coaching programme.
The initiative is being implemented in Bangwe and Traditional Authority (T/A) Likoswe in Blantyre and Chiradzulu districts, respectively. It aims at encouraging male youths to go for HIV testing and VMMC.
Chazama says: “Before I was oriented in HIV and Aids issues through this programme, I did not know much about VMMC. I was afraid of going for it because of scary stories, which I heard. I now know the importance of having medical male circumcision.”
Youth Programmes Coordinator for Umunthu Foundation, Peter Dias, says the organisation realised that young people miss HIV and Aids information in the traditional platforms such as drama, poems, songs and billboards.
He says this has been the case because the messages are disseminated through channels that the youth do not like.
“We conducted a study which revealed that adolescents do not have a health seeking behaviour even when they fall seek. They also do not have information on HIV prevention. So, this programme seeks to address all that,” he says.
Dias says at least 20 coaches have been trained as peer educators in Chiradzulu and 16 in Bangwe and Limbe.
Coach for Black Milan, Jimmy Jeremia, says most youths face realities of HIV and Aids after being given the information. He admits that most youths understand the importance of getting tested and have now had their HIV tests and gone for medical male circumcision.
“The players are responding well… Most of them knew about the existence of HIV but not much about its transmission and prevention. Initially, players took it lightly, they made lots of noise each time I introduced the topic to them. But they have now understood the issue and many of them have gone through testing and medical circumcision,” he says.
Coach for Limbe United, Morris Kondowe, says he has been stressing the importance of getting tested for HIV, considering that, if one is not aware of his or her HIV status, they may have frequent illnesses and become unfit for physical games such as football.
“Players like HIV sessions so much. I am impressed that most of them participate in the sessions and do go for medical circumcision. This is an achievement coming from the background that players were involved in risky behaviours.”
“Initially, many players thought this is a useless initiative. When one falls ill frequently, they cannot play football. At times, one may feel out of place due to increased cases of discrimination when one has HIV,” he says.
Senior Nutrition and HIV and Aids Officer at Chiradzulu District Council, Pearson Mphangwe, says he is glad that the programme was extended to Chiradzulu. He says HIV prevalence among youths is high since most of them are exposed to risky practices.
“HIV in Chiradzulu is a serious issue, especially among the youth. This is even a national problem as evidenced by the recently released findings. I am not surprised to see organisations such as Umunthu bringing in such new interventions. The organisation has brought in something different; it seems the other channels have not worked out. Soccer is a crowd-puller,” he notes.
Mphangwe notes Chiradzulu youths are disadvantaged considering that the district borders with Blantyre and Zomba where residents live a fast life.
C h i r a d z u l u h a s h i g h unemployment rate, low education standards and high poverty levels, which force youths to be exposed to sexual activities at a tender age, he says.
In Malawian circles, football players have mostly been associated with having multiple and concurrent sexual partners and alcohol and drug abuse. Incorporating HIV prevention messages might as well be a game changer and part of the game.
Executive Director for Umunthu Foundation, David Odali, says HIV prevention education through football coaching is a new approach. The approach departs from traditional methods of disseminating HIV messages.
The traditional methods that were initially used included dances, poems, songs and drama, among others. Odali says the organisation thought of getting the youth using what they like the most; which is football.
“We thought of bringing something different from the traditional message dissemination channels to this new approach to touch the souls of the youth. You might have noticed that most beneficiaries are boys. This is the case because at the moment there are no girls’ football teams, but we are trying to find means to reach out to them,” he says.
Odali says the organisation noted that despite the many messages disseminated through the traditional ways, many youths were still getting infected with HIV.
“The youth prefer to discuss health issues with peers other than going to the hospital. It is even shocking to note that they may do this even when they have an STI which needs medical attention. This has been another challenge in dealing with the youth,” he says.
According to Odali, Bangwe was chosen as one of the active centres of the initiative because there are lots of sexual activities taking place as compared to other areas in Blantyre.
“There are lots of people who live in this area and are doing informal jobs in Limbe, there are lots of cheap rest houses where the youth and others go to have sexual activities, and there are lots of bottle stores and other places where local, cheap beer is sold. All these pose a high risk to the youngsters too,” he notes.
Malawi is a signatory to UNaids’ Protect the Goal Campaign, which aims at using football as a platform for scaling up access to HIV information and services among the youth, as well as to mobilise young people to commit to HIV prevention.
President Peter Mutharika signed the official UNaids Protect the Goal Ball as an indication of his government’s commitment to supporting the implementation of the campaign in Malawi at national, regional and community levels.
Goal three of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) sets to ensure healthy lives and promote the well-being for all at all ages. Among other things, the goal seeks to end the epidemics of Aids, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases and combat hepatitis, water-borne diseases and other communicable diseases by 2030.
National HIV and Aids estimates of 2015 by the National Aids Commission and Ministry of Health in collaboration with UNaids indicate that 88,000 young people aged 15-24 are living with HIV and 23,000 others aged 15 years and above die of Aids annually.
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