By Suzanne Beukes
On the surface, 17-year-old Mani Djelassem seems like any other teenager: she has a boyfriend, hangs out with her friends after school, reads magazines, and wants to be a journalist. But in reality, she is extraordinary.
Since the tender age of 13, Mani Djelassem has been speaking out about issues affecting adolescents living with HIV both in her home country of Chad and internationally, urging leaders to pay special attention to the challenges and responses for adolescents living with HIV, like herself. “I decided to get involved in the fight against HIV, because I’ve experienced it,” she says simply.
Slow progress for adolescents
Globally there have been major gains in almost every area of the response to HIV, but progress for adolescents is lagging behind. AIDS is the leading cause of death for adolescents in Africa. Most of these deaths are among adolescents who acquired HIV as babies and survived to their teenage years, either without knowing their HIV status or have not received the care they need.
Mani, like many other adolescents, only discovered she had HIV when she was already in her teens. “It was only when I was at the youth centre in Moundou that they informed me I was infected with the virus,” she says. “It was difficult.”
It was then that she embarked on a long and trying journey to disclose her status and deal with the realities of being HIV positive.
“They point at you”
The Djenandoum Naasson Adolescents Club in Moundou, is now where Mani spends much of her time mentoring other adolescents going through a similar experience.
“ When someone is out about their status, the others see that it is possible and that they don’t have to hide themselves, ” says Prudence Osmang, the Adolescent Club Counsellor.
One such teenager is Delar Chanceline, 15, who says overcoming stigma has been her greatest challenge.
“There are some friends that if you tell them ‘I’m positive’ they can’t keep a secret, they tell others ‘that girl is infected’,” she says. “And they point at you and that hurts a little.”
Now she says through the support at the centre and her friendship with Mani it is getting easier to manage.,
“When everyone knows, you are already free.”
The Naasson Centre is the only such facility in Chad providing medical and psychosocial support specifically for adolescents.
“Adolescents have very particular needs. They are going through a very transformative part of their lives and they need very specialized psychosocial support as well as quality healthcare and treatment,” says Thomas Munyuzangabo, UNICEF Chief of HIV and AIDS in Chad.
This is why UNICEF Chad is working with the Naasson Centre to create a model for HIV care for children and teenagers for the rest of the country. Chad would like to expand this approach, working with structures that are already in place.
“The idea is to use what we have learned at Naasson Centre to train and inspire youth in other parts of the county, and ultimately create a network of over 100 young people who can encourage youth to get tested, and raise awareness about HIV,” explains Munyuzangabo.
This is a considerable challenge but nothing Mani finds daunting. For the most part, the biggest hurdles have already been overcome. “Before, I felt like that stigma would be attached to me. Now it’s different. I’m not ashamed, and I hope more and more will join the movement,” says Mani.
* The Government of Chad, with support from UNICEF and other UNAIDS cosponsors, launched in November the national All In to #EndAdolescentAIDS campaign, a platform for action and collaboration to inspire a social movement to drive better results for adolescents through critical changes in programmes and policy.