- There has been so much talk about how HIV spread can be controlled in universities.
- The problem is, this talk is usually from grownups who are unable to effectively communicate with their target audience.
- The best way to handle the matter is what Tonny Muwonge, his partner Herman Mwanja and other students are trying to do.
It has become a public secret that university-going students usually between 17 and 24 years are sexually active, with many having unprotected sex.
The argument is that the learners are excited by the transition from the possessive high school environment to the free university lifestyle.
Other students come from single schools with strict restrictions and parents who possessively protect them from juvenile behaviour that exposes them to sexually transmitted infections especially HIV.
The students are, therefore, ignorantly curious to try out various affairs while at university.
As the idiom goes that curiosity killed the cat, some regrettably end up contracting HIV, and hence the high prevalence rate.
According to the 2016 Uganda population HIV/Aids Impact Assessment survey, HIV/Aids prevalence rate among young people (15-24 years) was at 2.1 per cent. This implies that young people are also a vulnerable group after homosexuals, sex workers, their clients and partners, fishermen and people who use drugs, researchers say.
Being a public health student, Tonny Muwonge, 22, pursuing a Bachelor in Environmental Science felt concerned whenever he read stories in newspapers about the rise of HIV prevalence among university students.
It is upon this background that he birthed the idea to team up with his colleagues at Makerere University’s School of Public Health to champion an awareness campaign intended to protect their colleagues from the terminal disease.
“After losing many family members to Aids I knew just how much one case of HIV infection can do to an unprepared family. As a student, I knew that something as small as telling the next person about how to prevent it could save a life,” says Muwonge.
In 2015, Muwonge met Herman Mwanja also a student of environmental Health Science and later a few other friends agreed to join the movement of a student-led initiative to raise awareness on HIV and advocate for interventions.
The initiative gave birth to the Students’ HIV/AIDS Awareness (SHIVA) campaign with objectives of raising awareness about the risks of HIV infection, increase uptake of HIV prevention interventions and mitigate HIV-related stigma among students, using innovative and sustainable student-led strategies.
With more young people having correct information about HIV and testing; with no stigma attached to HIV, more people would be protected from infection, the two thought.
In 2015, Muwonge says their target was to look for ways to make fellow students renew the talk about HIV /Aids and its preventive means freely since the topic seemed to have become fatigued that students had become complacent, making them vulnerable.
Utilising theirs students’ maintenance allowance together with a number of other colleagues that they had mobilised at the time, the two invested in red ribbons, fliers and posters with a message about the scourge.
“We started a red ribbon movement of 150 students that covered only three colleges including health sciences, College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences and the College of Veterinary Medicine, Animal Resources and biosecurity,” Muwonge says.
Filimin Niyongabo, 21, a second year student at Makerere University and SHIVA volunteer, says they take advantage of public events such as sports galas held at various universities to distribute ribbons, fliers, sometimes T-shirts and talk to students on how to prevent HIV/Aids.
“…the message also helps to inspire our colleagues to stop risky behaviour such as abusing drugs and alcohol. Currently, we are trying to reach a formal volunteer programme and also work on doing data evaluation on behaviour change [at universities],” says Niyongabo.
In 2015, the group realised that the red ribbon represents HIV prevention and mitigation of stigma worldwide that they adopted it as a cheap innovative way to involve every student in communicating HIV to all people that see them wearing a ribbon.
Today, the group makes thousands of ribbons and distributes them to fellow university students and encourage them to wear the ribbons with an inscription message “support HIV prevention!” and “stop HIV-related stigma.”
For sustainability, the team which is purely voluntary has started a Savings and Credit Co-operative (SACCO) and also sell the ribbons to students and HIV/Aids organisations including TASO and lecturers at Shs1,000 and use the money to buy more ribbons.
Some people, however, pay more money in order to support the cause. The movement has also spread to other universities including Kyambogo, Uganda Christian University, Mbarara University of Science and Technology, Kampala International University, and the Uganda Young Men’s Christian Association institute.
These have attracted at least 57 active members across the institutions of higher learning and reach more than 30,000 students with an ultimate target of reaching all the students and see the prevalence lowering with few or no student contracting HIV.
In order to bridge the gap when founders and others in leadership positions leave the institutions after finishing their courses, the movement has formed a transitional committee led by the guild health minister in each University.
On a lighter note, despite the earlier challenge of poor attitude among students who did not want to associate with the campaign such as refusing to feature on the posters, the campaign has since picked momentum with an overwhelming demand for the ribbons, the pioneers say.
Other top university officials have also joined the campaign under the patronage of Dr Geoffrey Musinguzi, a senior lecturer at Makerere University School of Public Health to guide the activities which has since attracted more and more support.
The programme has also attracted eight HIV positive students to join the HIV prevention campaign on top of financial support from Makerere University School of public health, Prof Barnabas Nawangwe, MUK University Vice Chancellor, and the Dean of Students Kyambogo University.
“The campaign has opened the door for freshers and really has some backing and patrons,” Niyongabo says. Nevertheless, the students decry the challenge of resource constraint, calling to other well wishers to donate to enable them reach every institution and student.
The students says some religious found Universities desist the ABC campaign [Abstain, Be faithful and use Condoms] to change Condoms to Christ while other clubs in universities fight the campaign with a view that it is intended to out compete them.