I'm proud to say we've saved their lives!
October 25, 2017
‘Young people aged 12 to 25 are in a phase of learning to make decisions. But those living with HIV often don’t know what to do or whom to talk to. This negatively affects their health. A peer supporter – who is also young and HIV-positive – can be the mouth and ears for a young person,’ explains Blessings Banda, of WeCare Youth Organisation in Malawi. We talked with him about the importance of peer support in the HIV response. Meet Blessings!
Why is peer support vital?
'Before, every person living with HIV was treated in the same way. Now, we segregate by age, capability and maturity. My foundation's peer supporters successfully reach out to young people living with HIV, because they've faced similar challenges. Young people can call them in the middle of the night, for example. And, importantly, peer supporters link them to the right care. We got twelve young people living with HIV back into healthcare. And now they're advocates of living positively with HIV themselves. I'm proud to say we've saved their lives!'
What are the barriers to HIV care in Malawi?
'In my country, many people are not ready to talk about HIV. And some HIV programmes only focus on adults, not on young people. An important challenge is the lack of HIV education at our universities. As a result, people with HIV don't get the right support. The WeCare Youth Organisation visits universities and brings students together in groups to develop ideas.'
Are you confident about the future?
'I have good hopes of reaching out to all young people living with HIV in Malawi. To those who don't know their status. To those who know their status but are not on treatment. And to those who are on treatment, but don't adhere properly. Peer support will positively contribute to achieving the 90-90-90 target. We've been implementing the peer support method in Malawi together with the Ministry of Health, district officials and community leaders since 2014. We're now working in one district and the capital. My ambitionis to have peer supporters in all 28 districts of Malawi, within five to seven years. This is achievable, little by little and with time. But it's not a one-man show. We have a great partner in PATA, an expert on supporting children and adolescents living with HIV.'
What motivates you?
'My family was affected by HIV. I lost my parents at a young age, and I saw my community suffering. I wanted to do something. Young people living with HIV often feel they have no future. Grace, for example, had lost all hope. I mentored her and now she is the best peer supporter in Malawi. I learned a lot from Dr Paul Farmer, who established Partners in Health, where I worked. He made me believe I can change the lives of people living with HIV, even with few resources. I can make people smile – this motivates me.'
Blessings Banda is Executive Director and supervisor of peer supporters at WeCare Youth Organisation in Malawi.