Monday, June 18, 2007

ACET work in South Africa - Eastern Cape and the issue of volunteer stipends

An unusual situation in South Africa – why we need to pay volunteers!

I started ACET as an international AIDS foundation in 1988. Here is some background on the situation in South Africa and issues we face in just one of 22 nations where ACET works.

Over 25% of South Africa live on less than £2 a day and that includes most of the people in the poorest areas where ACET works. Although some people do volunteer without any reward they need some basic income for essentials such as food since the time they give means they have less time to grow their own. We have trained a group of 50 volunteers who are currently working unpaid but this is proving unsustainable and we urgently need funding to pay them a monthly stipend. The government strongly encourages volunteering by very poor people. This has created an expectation among all those who are ‘volunteering’ that they will be given some kind of allowance – and indeed they need to be.


AIDS knows no geographic, cultural or religious boundaries. The epidemic is out of control and kills more people every year than any other disease. There are 40 million infected with HIV and millions more affected by the loss of loved ones who have already died from AIDS. Despite encouraging signs of reduced HIV infection levels in some countries and the development of new drugs to combat AIDS the global response to the pandemic is still overwhelmed by the needs. No cure or vaccines are available, or likely to become so, although HIV is preventable. The situation is so serious it is reversing some of the progress made in the poorest nations over the past 20 years.


South Africa has the highest number of HIV infections of any country in the world: more than 5 million of South Africa’s 45 million people are infected with the HIV virus. As many as one thousand people die each day of AIDS-related illnesses; as many as fifteen hundred people are infected daily. More than 660,000 South African children have lost one or both parent to AIDS. Since the onset of the AIDS pandemic, life expectancy in South Africa has dropped from 68 to 36.

In the midst of these grim realities, the level of infection continues to rise. HIV prevalence among antenatal pregnant women, the most reliable indicator of disease trends, has increased from less than 1% 15 years ago to almost 30% today.
The disease flourishes in an environment of poverty and unemployment where sex can be variously an exchange for affection, a badge of power, an economic necessity or simply an affordable way to pass the time.

A catastrophic HIV/AIDS epidemic

HIV is still spreading faster in South Africa than prevention efforts and there is an urgent need to catch up. There are government initiatives to teach young people about HIV/AIDS. Some information filters through and children generally know what HIV and AIDS stand for. But they have little concept of the implications of HIV and although they chorus safe sex is to “condomise” in practice the majority do not use them. Abstinence, or delaying sexual debut, and being faithful are not even considered as options.

With the huge number of AIDS related deaths and the stigma still attached to being HIV+ve families are disintegrating. Long established kinship structures in Africa have traditionally provided a haven for children in distress. But these have broken down giving rise to a rapidly growing number of child headed households. Many women and girls are turning to prostitution in an effort to reduce the financial pressures thus creating a vicious cycle of new infection. Medical facilities and resources are overwhelmed by those with HIV related illnesses and AIDS. Many people are dying painful and lonely deaths without receiving proper care or adequate treatment.

How can we respond to the overwhelming need?

The good news is that HIV is preventable. Therefore there is an urgent need for effective HIV prevention training and education, especially for young people in schools. Care is needed for those who are sick so that pain and suffering are alleviated and families supported through the challenges of caring for dying loved ones.

By investing in small to medium sized entrepreneurial community based projects it is possible to rapidly build capacity to reach much higher numbers of people with effective HIV prevention education and training and to expand volunteer teams to provide care to the sick.

Targeting South Africa’s Eastern Cape

The Eastern Cape is the poorest province in terms of average monthly expenditure, followed by Free State and the Northern Province according to the Statistics SA report: Measuring Poverty in South Africa. It is estimated that in the Eastern Cape over 100,000 young people aged 15-19 are HIV positive. Within the regional population as a whole it is estimated 57.7% of women and 42.7% of men aged 15-49 are living with HIV. Started in August 2006 ACET EC was set up to implement HIV/AIDS prevention and care programmes.

HIV prevention in schools

The primary theme of much of AIDS education is risk-reduction through the use of condoms, an approach that is limited in efficacy by cultural, behavioural and logistics factors. ACET Educators are trained to deliver a series of two lessons about HIV/AIDS and how to avoid being infected. The first half of the programme presents biological facts and risk factors, exposes myths and describes how HIV can spread through communities. The session also covers other sexually transmitted diseases, drug abuse and contraception.

The second half of the programme deals with the importance of premarital sexual abstinence and marital fidelity. Teachers are invited to the sessions and discussions. They also help with the evaluation and our trainers show them how they can incorporate the information into other lessons.

ACET’s team of volunteer educators are all fully trained and this year we plan to visit 20 schools in the 2007/2008 academic year. We currently have 15 volunteers who do assemblies and classes. In this way we expect to reach over 12,000 students with our high impact HIV prevention programme.

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