PREVENTION AT THE ROOT

The Higher Education and Training HIV/AIDS Programme (HEAIDS) is at the forefront of safeguarding South African students against various pandemics, encouraging them to strive for a life of health and safety

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According to statistics, around 7 million South Africans today are HIV positive. Together with other epidemics like TB, stressors that include gender-based violence and lack of education around safe sex and the pervasive risk of poverty and substance abuse, equipping our youth with the necessary knowledge and skills to combat these trends has become vital.

The Higher Education and Training HIV/AIDS Programme has been around since the turn of the century when, in the year 2000, the government decided to roll out a programme addressing one of the most vulnerable groups exposed to these risks—our students at universities and colleges across the country. Now in its 17th year of existence, the programme serves almost 2 million students across 420 campuses countrywide and has been lauded both locally and internationally for its transformative impact on young lives in southern Africa.

At the head of the organisation is find Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia, Director of HEAIDS, who has come a long way since its inception and has taken it to new heights through his doting leadership and passionate commitment to the cause. Ahluwalia, a medical doctor by profession, joined the HEAIDS team in 2011 and has since been instrumental in both maintaining the organisation and spearheading innovative sub-programmes and projects.

“I studied and graduated in India as a medical doctor. My father was in India at the time and after graduating there, I did my training in internal medicine while I worked in Mauritius for three years. I then worked as a medical doctor in the Eastern Cape for the Department of Health in the nephrology unit and soon did an MBA at the University of Cape Town before moving to the Department of Higher Education and HEAIDS and, for the past seven years I’ve been with the organisation. However, I also completed my PhD in Public Health in 2015. I joined HEAIDS in 2011, during which time the programme was going through massive turmoil. The programme used to enjoy 20 million euros as funding for the entire sector, which was reduced to just a mere R5 million,” he says.

Ahluwalia says when looking at the reasons behind the establishment and the mandate of the organisation, it speaks to the fact that, currently, the most vulnerable group affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic are youths aged between 15 and 24.

This means that a substantial amount of students across the country fall into the vulnerable category when it comes to exposure, a need that the HEAIDS organisation has taken leadership in when it comes to combatting the epidemic head on.

To ensure the initiative’s impact would be substantial, the organisation has further invested in preventative measures against the root causes that are linked to HIV, such as the lack of education about responsible sex, and have implemented various empowerment programmes to address this need, including for men, women and the LGBTI communities.

“When you come to university or TVET colleges, in these scenarios, you have that unbound freedom. Your level of multiple partnerships might increase and you are bound to enjoy sex for the first time, and it can be very risky in a country with such a high epidemic. Drug and alcohol use is also very high within the higher education sector, further increasing the risk to HIV. Transactional sex—which is older men preying on young women for small meals—is extremely high and the data and statistics indicate that there are vulnerabilities at universities and TVET colleges,” Ahluwalia says.

Ahluwalia also displays a keen passion for assisting youth in need and says, for him, the common situation where a single family member has the privilege of pursuing further studies, thereby becoming the main income earner and supporting the wider family is one he can empathise with. To him, it is exactly these valuable educated youths that need the preventative measures to ensure their own health and contribute to the growth of their own families.

“If I have to die, the whole generation in my family is going to be orphaned. That orphan might never get educated and fall prey to diseases like HIV and poverty, yet, the only way that the transformation in South Africa can happen is through education. It’s not only about education but about an educated South African living longer and ensuring a generation comes out of poverty. And that’s exactly what HEAIDS is doing, trying to create an educated South Africa, which will live longer and healthier, and ensuring that we give back to the community. I’m not talking about the macro level, I’m looking at the most micro level and that is the family unit,” he explains.

Ahluwalia is also proud that during his leadership to HEAIDS, the programme started rolling out their services to the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges. This, he says, is often where most of the vulnerable youth, who come from rural areas or townships, end up getting training in skills, for example, plumbers, electricians or miners.

Today, across all TVET colleges around the country, HEAIDS programmes are being implemented that cover a wide range of topics. One of the most popular, if not the flagship, of the offerings is the First Things First programme that looks at various components of healthful living. First Things First talks about the first priority of very young South Africans to look after their own health and wellbeing.

This includes educational offerings on gender-based violence, contraception, condom promotion, HIV/TB, cholesterol, diabetes, mental illness, breast cancer, cervical cancer and more. He says part of the vision is to bring all these services to the doorstep of every young life in every university and TVET college.

Despite the many active and successful programmes that are currently run across the country, Ahluwalia says funding remains a key challenge. The biggest frustration is when donors pull out, which can impact on sustainability.

To keep funders convinced, Ahluwalia tries to stick to the principle where, for every one cent that is invested in HEAIDS, he will strive to give a return of one rand. His biggest appeal to people currently investing and donating to the initiatives is to continue doing so because somewhere, it is saving a human life and making a family stronger.

On the topic of leadership and what it means to him, Ahluwalia says it comes down to being a role model to others. He refers to the symbolism of a loving parent wanting the best for their child and says that, sometimes, the lessons that come with this hand can be misinterpreted as being stern or even annoying to some youths. Ahluwalia, however, believes that a real leader, like a proud parent in his case, wants to see their child be the best.

“The child might feel that their parent sometimes get angry with them and disturbs them. Later, the child realises that it was his parent who mentored him in order to make him the best in the world.

“As a leader, you will face criticism, you will receive a lot of praise, you will garner a lot of respect but there will always be a few people who will not be happy. At the end, you are like a father and your job is to all the people who follow you—they are like your children and you have to ensure that you get the best out of them, because if you, they won’t be successful. Their success is eventually a leader’s success and will eventually come out when they need to be strong, need to be confident and need to ensure that they’ve got the interest at heart to get things done,” he says.

Ahluwalia concludes by saying, “Get inspired to make a change and help transform South Africa. I would be very happy if the real transformation happens on a family level that changes South Africa from there because I think we cannot change the country for the better if we don’t change on a primary level and bring people out of poverty through education.”

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