Refilwe* is a 13-year-old girl in Limpopo with a bright face and a slight smile. Her mother, Masetshaba*, describes her daughter as shy and seemingly lonely. She often kept her stress bottled up inside, not sharing her troubles with her family.
Often, Refilwe stayed out late and didn’t always listen to her parents. She didn’t see how her decisions were putting her health, and even her life, at risk.
Globally, children, adolescent girls and young women are some of the most vulnerable groups to HIV infection and remain disproportionately impacted by the epidemic. In sub-Saharan Africa, 67% of annual new HIV infections in young people occur in adolescent girls and young women, and they are up to 14 times more likely to become HIV-infected than their male peers.
For girls like Refilwe, life can be tough without support, but that’s where ChommY helps.
ChommY, which means ‘friend’ in South African slang, started in March 2020 as an initiative under the Government Capacity Building Support project. It was designed as part of the Social Behavior Change Compendium of Programs for the country’s Department of Social Development. The program focuses on social behavior change in 10- to 14-year-olds to generate knowledge, develop skills, empower young people and enable them to make more informed choices in their lives. While girls are an important target group for the program, it is open to all young people.
Social workers guide youth through five blocks of content over two weeks. Youth begin with sessions to help them better understand themselves and their value in the world. This provides a strong foundation for young people who, according to many of the program’s social workers, often struggle with self-esteem.
Youth also learn about sexual health, including how their bodies develop over time and the importance of caring for their sexual health. This is a critical component as one of the main goals of ChommY is to prevent unplanned pregnancy and reduce HIV infections among teenagers.
Other sessions help youth build decision-making skills and make good choices about their relationships, lifestyle, careers and more.
For Refilwe, the program taught her to better respect herself and others and to make healthy decisions in her life. She also learned critical information on how to prevent sexually transmitted illnesses, including HIV.
When asked if she would recommend the program to other youth, her answer is a resounding yes.
“It [ChommY] teaches us about life experience and how things are in life,” says Refilwe. “Everything with ChommY is important.”
The changes in Refilwe are evident to her mother who no longer sees a shy, lonely child, but a happy one who plays with other kids. “She is also expressing her feelings and has become talkative,” said Masetshaba.
ChommY facilitators see positive changes like these in many of the youth who come through the program.
At the end of the program, “many have gained self-confidence to talk in public without any fear or doubting themselves,” said Kgaugelo Mogashoa, a facilitator of the ChommY program in Limpopo.
Changing the face of social development in South Africa
The success of ChommY relies on a cadre of social workers across eight provinces who are trained as program facilitators by Pact’s master trainers. Once trained, these social workers take their knowledge and skills back to their provinces to train more social workers and community-based organizations on how to apply the ChommY program in their communities.
Aspiring master trainers must have in-depth knowledge of the topics covered by the program. They also have to be prepared for the multitude of questions that youth could pose and challenges that could arise during the sessions.
They are up to the challenge.
For Keneilwe Thipe, Pact ChommY lead and regional program manager for Free State and Eastern Cape, social workers’ passion for helping others is undeniable.
“I had the opportunity to speak to some of the participants of a master trainer session. The passion they have for helping others is what stood out the most for me,” said Thipe. “They see ChommY as an empowering source of information, and it gives them hope for the future and specifically for further refinement of social development in South Africa as a whole.”
“Young people have so much to offer. They just need some kind of direction from social workers,” said Slindile Dladla, a social worker in Gauteng province. “The most important thing participants learn is that they have power within them to face whatever challenges they go through. They are now active in their lives and in bringing about change.”
All social workers with the Department of Social Development have been trained on the ChommY program and it is now being implemented in all provinces across South Africa.
Refilwe is one of more than 23,500 youth who have participated in the program since it began in 2020. Today, there are nearly 3,700 active youth in the program.
*Names have been changed to protect individual’s privacy.
GCBS is a partnership between USAID/PEPFAR, South Africa’s Department of Social Development (DSD) and Pact. The program has been working since 2013 to build DSD’s capacity to better support orphans and vulnerable children in an effort to reduce new pediatric HIV infections and ensure that all South African children and adolescents who are living with HIV receive the care and support they need to live healthy, positive lives.