|Project:||LoveMatters! An abstinence-based HIV/AIDS prevention programme|
"For the first time in my life I have been able to ask any questions I like and get an answer", says a teenage boy from Soweto. He is one of thousands of teenagers from schools and churches who have attended a 5 day residential programme called LoveMatters! The programme has been offered over the past ten years by a team of Salesians of Don Bosco, peer ministers and invited experts, at the Bosco Youth centre near Johannesburg in South Africa. The programme seeks to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Southern Africa.
LoveMatters is an abstinence-based HIV/AIDS prevention programme which also promotes spiritual awareness, since sexuality does not operate on the level of the merely physical but includes spiritual and psychological planes as well. And since youth programmes are often identified as attending to the problems of young people (assisting drug-takers, small offenders. school drop-outs...) LoveMatters sets out to address a wider spectrum. It does sometimes deal with 'problem teens' but its participation is chiefly the average disadvantaged teenager who just needs to be guided and affirmed along the path to health, happiness and holiness. "We believe", say the programmes leaders "that our dynamic, formative LoveMatters programme convinces participants to make wholesome choices and avoid the painful consequences of irresponsible behaviour. LoveMatters provides experiences which build up their self-esteem and confidence, and helps teens find a basic spirituality and philosophy of life for their future".
Bring them in while they are young
"I think this camp should be for younger people because I have got myself involved in a lot of things a while ago and I never knew what I was getting myself into. So if young people could find out earlier.....": thus writes a Grade 9 boy who handed in this note before jumping on the bus to go home after the programme. One school in Soweto realised that it was almost too late to send Grade 9s, as their pupils start experimenting with sex at a much younger age, so they sent a Grade 7 class along. The lat morning a few girls made a very emotional commitment to the abstinence pledge. They were just 13 years old and on different occasions had been raped by men on the way home from school. Fear and shame was their lot from then on, but the LoveMatters programme had addressed many of their fears and they had a desire to reclaim their virginity, forcibly stolen from them and still have the courage to make a positive commitment to life.
The programme uses the SEE-JUDGE-CHOOSE process. Participants go into groups initially with a ratio of 7 youths to 1 leader. A doctor and midwife provide appropriate information on the biological intricacies of the male and female reproduction system and the young people are invited to ask any questions they wish. Issue of gender, parenting, peer culture are dealt with along the way. A married couple shares how they met, why they decided to marry, the impact of children on their marriage and so on.
Professional dramatists help the JUDGE phase by examining life situations and the impact that choices made have on them: peer pressure to have sex, alcohol use and abuse at parties, abortion suicide. By this stage a deep level of trust has been built up in the group and with leaders, as boys and girls begin to share some of the immense life choices they have already had to make - an unwanted pregnancy and subsequent abortion, or someone toying with suicide after bearing tragedy that seems too hard to bear. Towards the end of the week there is a shift from facts, information, discovering the truth to making quality judgments for oneself. How would I act if I found myself in this or that situation?
Invitation to a commitment
On the last day 'role model' speakers are invited, and share their uplifting stories of how they made a difference to communities they live in. Typically Pippa Jarvis shares the story of her family who have opened their home to abandoned babies, giving her 18 brothers and sisters, effectively! She challenges the young participants to be part of the solution rather than the problem. and finally the young people are invited to a pledge ceremony where, if they feel called, or fell the need to join the struggle against HIV/AIDS they pledge to abstain from sexual activity before marriage, and to fidelity to their future spouse. It is not uncommon for 75% of participants in a session to make this pledge.
Of course it is not all talks and discussions. There is ample time for games, time to relax, laugh, be young. The recreation is not purely fun. The Salesians recognise that physical challenges shape and augment mental strength, the "I actually did it!' feeling. The change that comes through the LoveMatters programme is significant. If 75% commit to the life-changing choice of abstinence and keep to it, they too become great agents for social change in their communities.
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