In South-Sudan, fighting has been going on between government troops and rebel factions since the end of 2013, killing thousands and making 2.2 million people flee their homes. A tentative peace deal was signed in August 2015, but the situation remains unstable. Refugees returning home are often still forced to live in camps back in South-Sudan where conditions are poor and crowded camps are often rife with sexual assault on women due to low security levels. As a result of this and minimal access to sexual health services, people living there are at high risk of HIV. Kasweta Self-Help Group are working to change that, this is the story of their founder, Bernard Ochieng.
I left my home country of South Sudan because of the civil war, and relocated to Kakuma, a refugee camp in northern Kenya.
During the civil war, our fathers were killed while our mothers and young women were sexually assaulted and maimed by soldiers who ought to have protected us as civilians. Most of us went to Kenya but after the peace deal, some of us decided to come back.
Back then many young girls were sexually abused, but they couldn’t access reproductive health services as our country was turmoil. So, when we were at Kakuma, we found a safe place where we could access HIV prevention services and also get trained in valuable life skills. But we still had a big challenge – removing the stigma young girls had around HIV.
Most of us never knew our HIV status back then because it wasn’t something we talked about in our region. I was trained as a peer educator and this motivated me to start educating our community members on HIV prevention and even mobilizing other young people to get tested. But they were skeptical at first because of the stigma and discrimination.
While at Kakuma camp, I was shocked one day when I saw a statistic showing how many young people were living there with HIV. I was so shocked that I began encouraging fellow young people to get tested and we even formed a support group for our own as most of us could only speak in our local dialect.
When we returned home after some peace was declared, I decided that I was going to carry on, as so many young people didn’t know their status and I wanted to change that. With 15 members, I shared my vision with them and they all agreed to support my cause. Realising that most of us had inadequate knowledge on HIV prevention skills, we started by using songs and theatre activities to pass the message to other young people in markets and schools. To gain our support for our initiative, we approached community leaders to help us. They were very supportive as they are our gatekeepers. I remember one elder saying,,“We need to support these young people because we will not only be creating young leaders, we will be uncovering young peoples leadership capabilities and providing a path for them to put they capabilities into practice”, this really encouraged us to continue with our cause.
One elder linked us up with a local health center. At the health center, we encouraged the officer in charge to hold youth friendly Voluntary Counseling and Testing services (VCT) as most young people did not know their HIV status and he agreed. We did community mobilization for young people to get tested and after three months, VCT uptake was high. I was shocked by how many of the young people living with HIV were girls, the health center told me this was due to the civil war,where young girls were used as sexual objects. We extended our campaign to other service providers and our work was now being recognized in the community.
One of our key partners introduced us to the MTV Staying Alive Foundation, who are now the main supporters of our work. With their support, we have trained peer leaders, organised village committees and identified service providers and other sexual health stakeholders. With their support we have seen an increase in VCT uptake and post-test clubs as well as establishing a referrals system and training young people in HIV prevention messages which pass to others through our theatre activities.
Thanks once again to the MTV Staying Alive Foundation for their support!