Though I fortunately don’t know what it’s like to live with HIV first hand, I’ve experienced something of the stigma of being HIV positive. Why? I am a cancer patient. During my chemotherapy and radiation treatment, I resembled someone succumbing to AIDS. I became many tones darker than my ordinary skin pigment and lost a lot of weight. I was the subject of whispered conversations in the school corridors. I felt ostracised: my worth was reduced to nothing.
Experiencing that stigma was painful to bear. I empathized with friends who had relatives who were HIV positive and had to deal with this discrimination as part of everyday reality. I knew of one such person: my best friend Moitshepi Matsheng. When she was 6 years old, she lost her mother to HIV/AIDS. She had grappled with the stigma directed towards HIV/AIDS victims’ families for many years of her life.
But she turned her story around, and began to break the silence. She co-founded Young 1ove, a youth-led organisation in Botswana that tackles tough and taboo topics such as HIV and the role of ‘Sugar Daddies’ – dating older men in return for gifts or money – in its transmission. Watching Moitshepi rise through her work in Young 1ove helped me give new meaning to my life when I needed it the most.
Before my cancer diagnosis and my education about HIV through Moitshepi, I did not know my worth and often engaged in risky behaviour. Some of that behaviour included having Sugar Daddies, a risk which could have given me an HIV infection, because, as Young 1ove pointed out, older men are much more likely to expose a teenage girl to HIV than a sexual partner their own age. After I went through the painful processes of cancer treatment, I was beaten to a pulp and didn’t know how to rise. It was then that Moitshepi’s life began to illuminate me in the right direction. She is breaking the silence, and the Young 1ove team of facilitators do it every day in schools around the country. These Young 1ove-ers blow me away – they go to schools, have real conversations with young girls, expose the risk of Sugar Daddies, and are role-model young women themselves.
I have decided, like my friend Moitshepi, to share my story. I had to value myself to survive.
It is ironic. A life threatening disease – cancer – did the opposite of taking my life; it gave me reason to live. But it shouldn’t take a cancer diagnosis to love oneself.
I recently started reflecting on why I was ever drawn to Sugar Daddies in the first place. It stemmed from a lack of self-worth. I encourage girls who haven’t begun to engage in risky behaviour or be seduced by Sugar Daddies to know they do not need to. Young girls have it all in them to achieve their dreams, and to know that they are worth more than money could ever buy. Had I met someone like Moitshepi when I was a school-girl, I would have never needed to hit rock bottom to come back up. That’s why, although I am not a school-girl anymore and I am not HIV positive, I am a proud Young 1over and always will be.
Young 1ove is a youth-led organisation based in Botswana. With the support of the MTV Staying Alive Foundation, the organisation has educated more than 34,000 school girls and boys in rural parts of Botswana about HIV, sugar daddies and condom use in 2015 alone.