“I have the right to say no. Sexual abuse is when a man wants to sex to a girl…”

These were the words of an 11-year-old Zimbabwean girl from Regina Coeli Catholic Primary School in Nyanga, delivered in slightly faltering but confident English, when I asked her what she’d learned from the Progressio ICS volunteers who had been helping out in class, in order to raise awareness about HIV.

Responsibilities and rights

Responsibilities arrive young for many Malawians and Zimbabweans, especially where AIDS has entered the household. But rights are sometimes somewhat slower to follow.

Malawi has 650,000 children orphaned by HIV and AIDS – that’s one in 25 of the whole population. And Zimbabwe has one million AIDS orphans – a staggering one in 13 of the whole population.

Primary age children, like in this class of 8 to 11 year olds which I attended, can be thrust by AIDS into the head of household role, left to take responsibility for bringing up younger siblings. And what is more, around one-third to half of AIDS-orphan-headed families have to do the bringing up on less than £1 per day! Woman and girl-headed households are especially vulnerable to such extreme poverty.

Education and empowerment

So it’s easy to see why Malawians and Zimbabweans of all ages prioritise HIV and AIDS education and support in just about every community and every development programme I visited. Whether the main focus is environment, advocating for rights, farming, income generating or nutrition, an HIV and AIDS component is integrated.

And it works in the other way round for organisations specialising in HIV, like Domcap with which Progressio works in the stunning Nyanga mountain region of Zimbabwe (it reminds me of the Scottish Grampians that I love, except that it is 25 to 30 degrees most of the year here, and there are no midges…).

Domcap also seeks to help people living with HIV and AIDS empower themselves by supporting the remote mountain communities to advocate for their rights and to find ways to generate income.

HIV and poverty

Poverty and HIV and AIDS weave a mutually reinforcing web that enmeshes people. If you start poor and HIV enters your life, you tend to get poorer – for example through loss of income due to sickness or even stigma that marginalises you from finding work. Or the other way round, if you are not so poor but are living with or affected by HIV, you can fall into poverty – like an AIDs orphan who has to drop out of school to try and work to replace your lost parents’ income.

Theory and reality

So while the primary class was immensely impressive in its grasp of HIV and AIDS and of rights and responsibilities, it was also not surprising that they were getting informed and preparing themselves. The law protects girls – at least in theory – from under-age sex, including in marriage. But the reality for some is being taken out of school for marriage and child-bearing from as young as 11.

Knowing their rights and learning about speaking out and advocating for those rights is no guarantee of these girls being able to choose to complete their schooling – something that is proven to enhance their prospects of rising out of poverty – but it certainly gives them a better chance.

They will also have a better chance of protecting themselves from HIV. The boys might just speak up for them too, with their knowledge. I know I would sit up and listen in the face of such serious, well-informed and well-articulated arguments.

HIV support group at Regina Coeli school

Help and support

They might get other help too from the local HIV support groups of adult men and women with whom Domcap and Progressio also work. The group also attended the class (see photo above) and joined in with the pupils and teachers in applauding each child after they spoke up in class.

Or help may come from the local Health Minister’s representative, the local traditional leaders or the secondary school classes, all of whom attended the performance that the whole primary and secondary school put on later: poems and drama, worked up with the Progressio ICS volunteers, that put the messages across so powerfully and emotionally.

‘Rights and responsibilities’ was the poem that one girl, Rosemarie, had written and acted out:

Rights, rights, rights
Everyone has to talk about rights
Rights are good, but we must not forget our responsibility
I have the right to share them, but it is my responsibility to clean my surroundings
I have the right to health, but it is my responsibility to work and get good food
I have the right to education, but it is my responsibility to read and study and practice
Rights, rights, rights
Rights are good but we must not forget our responsibilities

There was a shining joy too among the people I met in the Zimbabwean Highlands. Difficult odds stacked up, but I at least left them with real optimism. We have to keep on supporting communities like this in solidarity, in prayer, in skill sharing and financially, don’t we?

Mark Lister is Progressio’s Chief Executive. He visited Zimbabwe and Malawi in January 2013.

Photos: top, a class at Regina Coeli school in Nyanga, Zimbabwe; middle, the adult HIV support group visiting the classroom - Mark Lister is in the red t-shirt.