"Where is Lesotho?" my friend asked me as I was sorting through my mail.
I held the envelope in my hand, staring at the smudged postmark that read "Maseru, Lesotho." As I opened it I imagined the worst. Lesotho, a landlocked kingdom surrounded by the nation of South Africa, has faced one of the world's fiercest HIV/AIDS epidemics. Last year, more than one in five adults in Lesotho was HIV-positive, a statistic that has ravaged families and filled orphanages across the country. I imagined that the letter was from a grad school classmate or global health colleague, informing me that the situation in Lesotho was getting worse.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
The letter, written by a young woman named Limakatso Mokobocko, filled me with hope. It was a testament to why we can create an AIDS-free generation: the power and commitment of youth.
Limakatso is an on-air radio host for the Silk-eeTM female condom program, an initiative operated by PSI, Johnson & Johnson, and the United States Agency for International Development to empower young women to protect themselves from HIV and unintended pregnancies. Her letter recounts, in painful detail, the horrors inflicted on her country by HIV, by gender inequality, and by cultural taboos that prevent young women from asking simple questions about sex that could save their lives.
Limakatso's letter (transcribed below) was not a cry for help or a statement of defeat. Rather, it was a call to action, one that started when Limakatso looked in the mirror and asked, "What can I do?" It's a question I asked myself when I learned that half of all new HIV infections every year around the world are among people under 25. And it's a question that millions of young men and women across Africa -- and the world -- are answering with their actions.
Fed up with watching a disease squander their generation's future, young people are breaking down communications barriers. They are talking to their friends, their families, their boyfriends, their girlfriends, encouraging them to ask questions, protect their health, and pursue their dreams. They are saying, "Enough."
This summer the International AIDS Conference in Washington D.C. will include thousands of youth voices from around their world. If the global community is serious about creating the first HIV/AIDS-free generation by 2015, we need to listen to young people and respond to their needs.
And we need to do it now.
Please read Limakatso's letter:
I just finished reading your book, All That Is Bitter & Sweet. Your book inspired me to share the story of my own country.
Of course, it is hard to compare Lesotho with many of the places you describe in your book. I mean, what can compete with the horrors of forced prostitution in Cambodia or sex slavery and trafficking in India? Those heartbreaking stories ultimately made me feel, perhaps naively, that we here in Lesotho have a lot to be grateful for.
Walking around Maseru, you might find it quiet and orderly. But in a country where 23% of adults are living with HIV, the third highest in the world, this calm surface only hides a pandemic that is wreaking havoc on families -- leaving behind orphans, widows and extreme poverty. Women are especially impacted by the HIV epidemic in my country. HIV prevalence jumps dramatically from about 8% to 40% as women transition from adolescence to womanhood. As a Mosotho woman, I remember the joy and optimism of my youth and it pains me to think about this next generation of young women are faced with a disease that robs them of their youth and shows no sign of retreat.
In Lesotho, it's very common for people to have multiple sexual partners -- a problem that is now one of the biggest drivers for HIV. The situation is so bad that most people do not think it is possible to be committed to just one person. At the same time, many girls in Lesotho often start having sex with older men -- who promise to help them pay for food, books, or clothes. Together, these problems have infected many young girls with HIV.
In our culture, young girls and women are powerless to insist on condom use and are forbidden to talk openly about sex. In reading your book and learning how you've used your position to confront similar issues, I came to realize that few people in Lesotho have the courage to address our issues head-on.
In your book, you talked about how the contributions of every person are important and improve all of humanity. I couldn't agree more, which is why I've recommitted myself to speaking out more about the issues that affect women in my country. I am currently the on-air radio voice for PSI/Lesotho's young women's program, which is called Silkee. I took on this role about the same time that I was reading your book and your words inspired me to use this forum to lead important discussions about sex, condom use and the rights and responsibilities of young Basotho women. In this way, I am trying to live up to your words by making my small contributions to improve all of humanity.
To read more about other young men and women like Limakatso making a difference in the fight against HIV/AIDS, please read the latest, youth-focused issue of Impact Magazine.