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'Safe Love' for Zambia hearing impaired

Alarmed by the number of deaf students contracting HIV/AIDS, outreach programme moves to help those at risk.
Last modified: 17 Jul 2013 17:40

Lusaka, Zambia - In the Minali township of the Zambian capital, Lusaka, some 20 pupils join together at a local high school to talk about sex, relationships and HIV/AIDS.

As part of a campaign called the "Safe Love", around 1,500 people between the ages of 18-49 meet at least once a week across the city to discuss the virus that has - to a large extent - devastated the social fabric of this country.

But the session we've dropped in to listen to is a little different.

It is a special class for the deaf. Sessions are designed to include people with disabilities who have been mostly left out of the HIV/AIDS policy, education and awareness efforts in the country.

Twice a week, students come and through the help of a translator and facilitator, share stories and exchange information about the virus. Crucially, it is a space that opens up a conversation on the particular social circumstances that lead to increased vulnerability.

In Zambia, the key drivers of HIV/AIDS include concurrent partners, low male circumcision and low condom use.

The students, many in their mid-twenties, come with stories of abuse, and marginalisation.

Ben Miti, executive director of the Latkings Outreach programme, one of the partners of the initiative, tells us that in many ways these pupils are more vulnerable than others.

Zambia is home to an estimated 16,000 people with hearing disabilities, including those with partial or absolute hearing disability.

With most awareness efforts concentrated on radio and television, not only are they left out of the conversation, their access to health care is also hampered by high costs.

Crucially, it often results in a compromise of confidentiality as unqualified interpreters intervene during traumatic pre- or post-counselling, or during diagnosis.

It is remarkable, that as HIV/AIDS enters its fourth decade in the popular imagination as a devastating virus, fraught with issues of stigma and shame, how an entire segment of a population living in the midst of an epidemic can still suffer abject neglect. That we can learn anything more about the web of discrimination, espoused by a complex social milieu, is even more astounding.

Even organisers here admit that while the Safe Love clubs started in 2011, the classes for the deaf began just two months ago.

In fact, it was only in 2011 that the first set of counsellors, 21 in total,  were trained to specifically help the deaf in HIV AIDS related counselling in Zambia.

"We conducted [an] HIV test in the area a few months back and when we found that 49 out of the 127 deaf students tested were HIV positive, we knew we had to intervene," Miti said.

And though the facilitator Humphrey Chileshe leads the class like a tele-evangelist, thrilling and teaching all at once, it is here that one gets a sense that despite the gains and improvements in the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS, getting people to talk about it is just one part of the dilemma. Including everyone in the conversation around HIV AIDS is another problem altogether.

Al Jazeera's Azad Essa is currently reporting on HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria in Zambia as part of a Global Health fellowship with the International Reporting Project. He will be focusing on the recent gains by Zambia in trying to alleviate the impact of three of the most devastating diseases to hit Sub Saharan Africa.

Follow him on twitter@azadessa