With radios, Pact and USAID help Swazi students stay on track during Covid-19

April 13, 2021

When the Covid-19 pandemic began, schools were among the first things that the government of Eswatini decided to close to stem the virus’s spread.  Like so many students, Sizolwakhe Mahlalela’s life was turned upside down.

The 15-year-old lives in Mkhiweni Inkhundla, eKutsimleni Chiefdom, with her mother, grandmother, three aunts and six siblings. Because she is being raised by a single mother who is HIV-positive with few economic resources, Sizolwethu qualified to enroll in Pact’s USAID-funded Insika ya Kusasa program. Insika Ya Kusasa is a five-year effort that is working to reduce new HIV infections in Eswatini and improve HIV clinical outcomes among two groups that are key in the fight against AIDS: adolescent girls and young women and orphans and vulnerable children. The program offers tailored support for children and adolescents affected by HIV, including case management and home visits.

Sizolwethu was in seventh grade when schools closed. Because Eswatini government schools don’t have the resources or internet access for online learning options, the government launched national broadcasts of educational sessions for grades with external examinations to help keep students on track. Seventh grade is among them, so it was important for Sizolwethu to have access to the lessons. But her family didn’t own a radio.

Insika ya Kusasa recognized this critical need and introduced an intervention to provide solar radios as part of its existing support for vulnerable students. Working with local partners, Insika home visitors identified students who were due to write their external examinations and needed radios.

Sizolwethu is among those who received one. Through Insika ya Kusasa, her family also receives help to pay for her school fees, and Sizolwethu is enrolled in a girls’ club facilitated by an Insika mentor where adolescents discuss relationships, HIV and pregnancy prevention in a safe space. She is also supported to access confidential, youth-friendly health services through a mobile outreach van that comes to her community specifically to provide services to adolescent girls and young women who may be reluctant to obtain sexual health services at their local clinic. Her family also received an emergency cash grant through Insika to help them afford food during Covid-19.

Sizolwethu says the radio was especially helpful because it runs on solar power, so she can use it even though her family doesn’t have consistent access to electricity.

“The only way I was able to access the educational information was through my grandmother’s phone,” Sizolwethu explains. “My grandmother’s phone later died and I was not able to learn anymore unless I went to my neighbor’s house to listen to their radio.”

The Insika-provided radios also record, a feature that Sizolwethu uses often. “The recording helps me to continue where I left off or where I didn't hear something properly during the lesson,” she says.

Sizolwakhe Mahlalela. (Credit: Bantwana Initiative)

The Insika-provided radios also record, a feature that Sizolwethu uses often. “The recording helps me to continue where I left off or where I didn't hear something properly during the lesson,” she says.

Mthokozisi Manana, 17, received a radio, too. An orphan who lives with his grandmother, Mthokozisi also has his school fees covered by Insika. Without the assistance, he wouldn’t have been able to keep his education on track. Before getting his radio, he had to borrow a neighbor’s, which made him feel like a burden. With a radio of his own, he can learn at home, including in the evening, because the radio includes a torch for studying after dark.

At the end of the school year, both Mthokozisi and Sizolwethu passed their exams, allowing them to move on to the next grade despite the pandemic’s disruptions. It’s an accomplishment that they say wouldn’t have been possible without support from Insika ya Kusasa.

“I passed with flying colors,” Sizolwethu says.

The Eswatini Ready, Resourceful, Risk Aware OVC, Adolescent Girls, and Young Women (Triple R) project (locally named Insika YaKusasa) aims to prevent new HIV infections and to reduce vulnerability among orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) and adolescent girls and young women (AGYW) in Swaziland. Insika YaKusasa helps HIV-negative OVC and AGYW stay HIV-free and supports those who are HIV-positive to lead healthy lives. To these ends, the project increases social and economic resilience to the impact of HIV and uptake of high-impact HIV, sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence services among OVC and AGYW. The project is implemented by Pact and civil society partners in Eswatini and is funded by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).