HIV prevalence in Zambia has reached almost 5% amongst young people aged 15 to 19 and it is estimated that only a quarter of this vulnerable group are aware of their HIV status. The Zambian government has cited the need for a widespread campaign on the benefits of knowing your status and has called for help from NGOs to increase the demand for, and provision of, HIV testing.
Grassroot Soccer (GRS) was begun in Zimbabwe in 2002 to address just this issue. They focus on the needs of young people by utilising the immense popularity and power that football commands in Africa to educate youth on topics such as making healthy decisions, avoiding risks and on HIV testing and treatment. The interactive HIV prevention and life skills curriculum is run by a diverse group of local role models that young people, both boys and girls, look up to, respect and aspire to emulate. Most of these are young (18-25) and many are female, people living with HIV, professional footballers or graduates of the programme themselves. The ability of the coaches to bond with and mentor young people ensures the programme achieves a greater impact and that the information learnt by participants is diffused throughout a community.
Since their founding, GRS have expanded to operate flagship sites in South Africa,
Zambia and Zimbabwe and, as a technical assistance partner, have helped design and launch projects in 10 other countries. Sir Elton John visited one GRS site in South Africa in 2010 to witness first-hand the great impact this programme is achieving. “Soccer stars are the most powerful role models for young people today” he said “so it’s fantastic that organisations like Grassroots Soccer are harnessing that power to educate young people about HIV’.
In mid-2010, the Elton John AIDS Foundation was pleased to support the continuing work of GRS in Zambia by making a grant of more than £1million. Through the scaling up of the GRS testing programme in the country and the establishment of an effective psychological support and follow up system, all HIV positive youth on the programme have immediate access to HIV care and treatment. The grant will be used to directly benefit an estimated 30,000 young people enrolled into the programme and at least 100,000 attending GRS testing events.