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Nancy Mahon

Nancy Mahon

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Battling HIV/AIDS in South Africa: One Goal at a Time

Posted: 06/24/10 05:33 PM ET

Since the 2010 World Cup kicked off, we have all been focused on the 32 teams who earned a spot in the tournament. Those of us whose teams did not make the event have long, sad stories as to how they were felled and are supporting adopted teams with equal force. We are also watching to see which players will be champions in play and spirit. Regardless, the World Cup has given many of us the extraordinary opportunity to connect and bond with citizens from several countries around the world.

As a global community, we need to unite and root for South Africa in the battle against its most glaring health problem - the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Much of the press coverage around social issues in South Africa over the past week or so has focused on the high AIDS rates but few have mentioned one of the largest drivers of the disease -- sexual violence against girls and young boys. All of the AIDS education in schools and billboard campaigns in the world will not effectively tackle the South African AIDS epidemic unless we create and support programs that honestly confront this national and international sorrow.

To address the increasing number of HIV/AIDS cases in South Africa, one organization is using the country's love for soccer to keep children engaged, empowered and most importantly, away from dangers that can put them at risk to transmission.

The statistics cannot be ignored. South Africa has the largest burden of HIV/AIDS in the world, with more than 5.7 million people - nearly 1 in 6 - living with HIV. The number of children between 0 and 14-years old living with HIV in South Africa has reached 280,000 cases. HIV is predominantly transmitted heterosexually through sexual intercourse. In many cases, the intercourse is forced upon young women, and HIV is then transmitted as a result of sexual violence.

In an attempt to address this troubling situation, the M•A•C AIDS Fund recently collaborated with Grassroot Soccer, an international charity that uses sports-themed activities to educate children in the world's most HIV-affected countries. The attention surrounding the World Cup presented a unique opportunity for Grassroot Soccer to launch a series of programs to engage children in South Africa and initiate a global movement against the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Throughout June and July, the Grassroot Soccer team of coaches and volunteers launched "Skillz" camps to coincide with the World Cup. These programs are intended to reduce the risk of children contracting HIV by keeping them healthy, safe and active during their six weeks off from school. The Grassroot Soccer facilities in South Africa provide a safe place for kids to watch the World Cup games and participate in activities including their own soccer matches. Grassroot Soccer also uses these camps as an opportunity to educate youth about HIV/AIDS and some of its key drivers including violence and inter-generational relationships. Curricula topics include making healthy decisions, avoiding risks, building support networks, reducing stigma and discrimination, increasing knowledge about HIV testing and treatment, addressing gender issues, and assessing one's own attitudes and values.

For years, HIV cases in South Africa have been disproportionately concentrated among women and girls. In sub-Saharan Africa, young women between 15 and 24-years old account for 75% of total HIV infections. In South Africa specifically, a young woman is four times more likely to be HIV-positive than a South African young man, making the need for programs like Skillz Street crucial.

This week in London the Elton John AIDS Foundation, a global organization committed to funding HIV awareness, counseling and testing, hosted the White Tie & Tiara Ball. The event was intended to raise money for "Skillz Street," a Grassroot Soccer street soccer program designed specifically for young women. The program was piloted this year with young women in Khayelitsha, a township outside of Cape Town, who were at risk of or had experienced sexual violence. Representatives from the M•A•C AIDS Fund were delighted to attend and surprised attendees with a £100,000 pledge to the Elton John AIDS Foundation to support the continuation and expansion of the Skillz Street program.

Studies from Rwanda, Tanzania and South Africa show up to three-fold increases in HIV risk among women who have experienced violence compared to those who have not. As the movie 2009 film Precious so graphically illustrated however, sub-Saharan Africa is by no means the only region in which sexual violence against young people damages lives and fuels HIV. We see similar stories also in Jamaica as well as other sub-Saharan countries like Lesotho and Swaziland.

The Global AIDS Alliance, an organization dedicated to putting an end to HIV/AIDS and mitigate its impacts on poor countries hardest hit by the pandemic, revealed that one in three women around the world will experience physical, sexual or emotional abuse in her lifetime. One in five will be a victim of rape or attempted rape. Studies show that women who have experienced violence may be up to three times more likely to acquire HIV than women who have not. While the reasons for this transmission can be varied, the majority of cases are a result of unprotected sexual assault. The M•A•C AIDS Fund is a proud partner of the Global AIDS Alliance and continues to support its campaign to end violence against women.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic is a deeply rooted, global problem. While the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in women, men and children is related to various country-specific socioeconomic issues such as violence, gender inequality and poverty, we as a global community must first acknowledge this problem and most importantly, unite in our fight against it.