Sick of AIDS

South African youth have heard it all, and they're not listening anymore

Date published: 2006-04-12 3:32:44 PM

In a country where one in ten people are HIV-positive and 1,500 more become infected every day, Claudia Mitchell is trying to keep South African youth from becoming ‘sick of AIDS’.

“When I first tried to get youth to talk about books and television shows meant to teach them about AIDS, they told me they were sick of it,” explains the McGill University professor. “They were exposed to so much information about the virus that they had simply stopped listening.”

For the past three years, Mitchell and her research team have been studying how to harness South African youth culture—everything from graphic novels to jean commercials—to educate and motivate young people to protect themselves from HIV.

“Originally, our research was looking at how authors and publishing companies were trying to reach youth,” she says. “But instead, the youth have become the cultural producers, telling their stories and experiences through photography, theatre and even documentary films.”

The importance of creative projects that engage youth directly is just one of the many insights gained by Mitchell’s team that will ultimately save lives in the battle against HIV and AIDS.

“We’ve also found it absolutely necessary to separate boys and girls when talking about AIDS,” explains Mitchell. “The messages are very different. For girls, it’s about saying no or negotiating sex with their boyfriends. And for boys, it is about getting them to think responsibly about sex and influence each other in a positive way.”

While most HIV-AIDS prevention programs target poor black youth who are typically more vulnerable to AIDS, Mitchell’s team has found it equally important to aim programs at white youth from more affluent schools.

“In a way, apartheid is being re-invented through this unequal vulnerability to AIDS,” she says. “The black kids ask ‘Why is it always us in these AIDS programs?’ And the white kids think that it doesn’t affect them at all.”

But, everyone—white, black, African or North American—is being affected, says Mitchell, and everyone needs to be part of the solution.

Claudia Mitchell’s research on South African youth culture, communication and sexuality is funded through SSHRC’s Standard Research Grants program.