Young people lead on HIV response in Burundi

Around the world many young people remain unaware of their HIV status, which is the second biggest cause of adolescent deaths. But in Burundi, young people are leading the way to address this issue.

Around the world many young people remain unaware of their HIV status, which is the second biggest cause of adolescent deaths. But in Burundi, young people are leading the way to address this issue.

Cedric Nininahazwe, Burundi’s executive director of the Network of Young People Living with HIV (RNJ+), cites discrimination and lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services as major challenges facing young people living with HIV.

He further explained: “Young people [with HIV] are not appreciated in their work because they are seen as someone who is about to die, even if you are important or rich, people always see a person living with HIV as not being the right person [for the job].”

However, Nininahazwe also provides a beacon of hope. “Many young people in Burundi live with HIV and through me they have an example of how living with HIV should not be a hindrance to one’s dreams,” he said.

Engaging young people

Last year, RNJ+ launched a youth centre giving young people access to free HIV counselling and testing, as well as other sexual and reproductive health information. The centre was funded by a programme called Link Up, which is supported by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance and aims to reach 1 million young people in five countries, including Burundi, Ethiopia, Uganda, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

“At first we had 200 youths but now we have almost 3,000 members despite not having placed advertisements in the various media outlets,” Nininaha said. “Many of our members are in the capital Bujumbura but we are also accepting more members from other places.”

Nininahazwe says Link Up has really helped his organisation, providing technical and financial support to help improve operations, and increase its reach to young people living with HIV.

“We are now one of the best organisations in Burundi working in this field. At first it was not easy, as young people were thought to have no experiences in financial management and the first year was like a test, but we have been good on reports and always on time,” he said.

Support for disclosure of HIV

One of the key activities of the network is offering space and psychological services to young people living with HIV.

Twenty-six year old Fabien Ndikuriyo narrates how he contemplated suicide when he learned that he had tested positive for HIV. “I felt I had no reason to live,” he said.

Ndikuriyo, who was orphaned as a young boy, is now an information communication technology specialist as well as a member of RNJ+. After his parents died he was brought up by his aunt, who one day suggested he go for an HIV test.

“I now believe that my aunt knew of my HIV status but could not gather enough courage to tell me about it. We went to a clinic together and there I was told that I was HIV positive, I got so annoyed with my parents because I just realised that I was born with HIV and contemplated killing myself as there was nothing to live for,” said Ndikuriyo.

However, his uncle and one of his friends convinced him that not all was lost. Ndikuriyo also praises RNJ+ for helping save his life by encouraging him to talk about his situation with others who were living with HIV.

“The network gave me space to talk about HIV and this led to me seeing more value in my life and since that time I have developed to be a peer educator and have helped change other people’s lives,” he said.

“Young people [living with HIV] have the right to life and good health and should be accorded the opportunity to live just like any other young person and have access to education and services.”

Ndikuriyo intends to excel in information and communications career and also to further his work in helping change the lives of people living with HIV in Burundi.

RNJ+ future plans

Nininahazwe, the executive director of RNJ+, has big plans for ensuring that young people are at the forefront of the global response to HIV.

However he also explained: “We are now renting a house [as an office] and this can negatively impact the sustainability of the programme.”

Nininahazwe is keen to increase services to young people living with HIV and places sustainability of the network high on his agenda. He said: “Donors considering supporting our network could think about providing a permanent office space.”

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