HIV RESILIENCE HEROES
A Swazi teen living with HIV sets a strong example, mentors her peers
Siphetfo Fakudze was born with HIV, but she didn’t learn her status until she was 12. As a child, she missed so much school because of illness that she had to repeat grades. When she finally got tested for HIV, her health issues began to make sense.
But she still had much farther to go on her road to a healthy life. She struggled to accept her status and adhere to antiretroviral therapy, or ART. On ART, people who are HIV-positive can live long, productive lives.
Siphetfo reached a turning point when a home visitor in Hosea, where Siphetfo lived with her mother and two siblings, enrolled the family in the Insika Ya Kusasa project.
Insika Ya Kusasa, which means The Pillars of Tomorrow, is a USAID-funded project implemented in Eswatini by Pact, with assistance from the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation and Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs. Its main goal is to prevent new HIV infections and bolster support and opportunities among two key groups: orphans and vulnerable children and adolescent girls and young women. When children and young women enroll in Insika Ya Kusasa, they gain access to comprehensive, layered HIV prevention and treatment services that are specific to their needs.
The home visitor worked with Siphetfo’s family to develop a family care plan. She suggested that Siphetfo join a Teen Club for HIV-positive adolescents at a local clinic, where she’d receive treatment adherence, psycho-social and peer support, as well as clinical services including viral load monitoring and medication refills. Siphetfo soon became a regular.
“Joining Teen Club taught me what HIV is and what it means to live with HIV,” she says. “I was taught how to take my ARVs correctly so that I stopped falling sick frequently.”
“My key message to my peers living with HIV is that they need to accept their status and move forward with their lives.”
Because of her consistent attendance and her commitment to her health, Siphetfo was soon asked to become a teen leader. She enthusiastically accepted and soon began providing peer support to other adolescents living with HIV and co-facilitating Teen Club meetings. She found purpose in supporting other teens facing the same things she was.
“My key message to my peers living with HIV is that they need to accept their status and move on with their lives,” she says. “Accepting their status will enable them to adhere to treatment and not be destroyed by stigma and discrimination, which is rampant among adolescents and young people.”
Siphetfo adds, “Another message I share is that they should seek support from the family to be able to adhere to treatment, and they should focus on their life goals, including education.”
Now 18, Siphetfo is living that advice. She has overcome the educational setbacks she experienced as a child because of illness. She now attends boarding school. Besides helping other teens who are living with HIV, studying is her priority.
“I wake up early, clean my room and make my bed. Then I take my medication and put on my uniform to be ready for class.”
She says the most challenging thing about being a young person living with HIV is dealing with stigma in her community.
“There is still a lot that needs to be done to educate people about HIV,” she says. “I have managed over time to change perceptions among my peers, and most now understand HIV and how we can overpower it through adherence to medication.”
As for her future, Siphetfo hopes to become a nurse.
“I would like to help children like me who grew up living with HIV,” she says.
“I hope they have a better future and follow whatever dreams they have.”