Knowledge is a powerful weapon that can be used to change the world and it is the surest basis of public happiness. In increasing the response to HIV and AIDS, Project Empower puts knowledge as a corner stone to improving lives. Through proving consciousness raising workshops, knowledge is shared among peers of different age groups.
According to statistics South Africa 2016, the estimated overall HIV prevalence rate is approximately 12, 7% of the total South African population. The total number of people living with HIV is estimated at approximately 7, 03 million in 2016. For adults aged 15–49 years, an estimated 18, 9% of the population is HIV positive. HIV prevalence in informal settlements weighs a high percentage rate because of different high levels of factors including extremely poor living conditions, unemployment, poverty, gender norms, gender based violence, lack of health care facilities , education etc. Therefore it is for this among many other reasons that Project Empower targets informal settlements to implement Stepping Stones.

To strengthen the response to HIV and AIDS Project Empower implement stepping stones which is a workshop series designed as a tool to help promote sexual health, improve psychological well-being and prevent HIV. In these workshops collectively people of the same age groups are voluntarily gathered together in numbers of 20 per class. Stepping Stones consist of sessions that are coherent; the sessions build on the previous one. They are intended to change people’s behavior and perceptions based on a group agreed decisions that fit to that communities ways of healthy living.

Stepping Stones sessions are coherent in the following manner:

• Session A: Let’s Communicate.
• Session B: How we act.
• Session C: Sex and love.
• Session D: Conception and contraception.
• Session E: HIV
• Session F: Safer Sex and caring in a time of AIDS.
• Session G: Gender Based Violence.
• Session H: Let’s Support Ourselves.
• Session I: Let’s Assert Ourselves.
• Session J: Let’s Look Deeper.

There is no doubt that our workshops were effective. Participants of stepping stones have had changes and improvements that they perceive in their lives as a result of stepping stones workshops. They report changes in their relationships, families, around the community and even their own personal mindset. On a one on one interview, participants were asked the following questions but not limited to:

• How can you describe your experience during the workshop?
• What is it that your think you gained in the workshop?
• Do you think the workshops can be a useful tool to improve lives of our societies?
• Are there other comments you would like to say about Project Empower approach to tackle social ills?

There were different interesting responses to these questions and since the program was over people were interested to know when the next program commences because they want to bring in their families and friends to get the opportunity. People acknowledge the power of knowledge in changing the society we live in and therefore they realize the importance of consciousness raising platforms.
Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into action. The strategy of making communities generate their own knowledge regarding their own ways of living ascertains the better action results. People are less hypocritical to things that have been developed or generated by them. We know and stay hopeful that whatever they discussed and agreed upon during classes will be put into practice.
in addition to Stepping Stones sessions, we conduct a Gender Based Violence session which are run by our social workers.
During this session social workers educate participants about GBV and

Following are direct quotations of some of interviewed participants.
“I learned a lot that I did not know. When I am with my peers we do not usually talk about things that really influence our everyday lives, we usually talk about parties and boyfriends. For the first time I got to seriously engage with my peers about social issues that really affect us. I think these workshops can be used to change societies and we thank Project Empower for bringing knowledge to us” Nolwazi Shiba from ward 59 (Amaotana).

Ignorance together with negligence are other most contributing factors that play a major role in the perpetuation of Gender Based Violence, HIV and AIDS, abuse and unhealthy society. Both young males and females from informal settlements and rural areas are the most victims of GBV and other social ills but they are less likely to be found discussing about them and trying to find solutions. The most prevalent discussions they have are parties and unhealthy relationships.

Through stepping stones people have learn to take responsibility and value the impact of curiosity and have realised that in order to build a healthy and peaceful society they should together construct their own accepted ways of living as a whole community.

“Previously I had no direction. I really hadn’t worked out what I wanted in life, I had no goals, and I was just a lady who lives in the moment. Through attending Steeping Stones classes I’ve had to think deeper about my life and develop goals for myself. I’ve never thought about getting tested before but after learning about HIV&AIDS I went to get tested. After seeing the usefulness of these classes, I even told my brother to join other classes that were for males” Nomusa Ngobese ward 59(Amaotana).

Many people have incorrect knowledge about HIV and AIDS, they just thing that if you have tested positive then your living days are numbered and their lives will change which result in them being scared to even check their status. After doing session E of Stepping Stone they become aware that HIV is not a death sentence anymore and people with HIV are not different from those who do not.

“The experience I had was amazing because I learned a lot that I didn’t know. Everything we discussed is of much value and influences our daily lives for instance my boyfriend used to beat me every time we had a misunderstanding and I accepted it because I believed it’s because he loved me. Through the discussions we had during classes I realised I was being abused and I told him that if he ever beat me again I will report him to the policy. We agreed that from now onwards we are going to sit as adults and talk about problems if there are any. He will never beat me again if he knows what’s good for him. I also wish that programs like these run in all wards because I know there are some other people who need help just like I do” Nqobile Nyandeni from ward 59 Amaoti.

“I used to think that we experience things and find ourselves in different painful situations because God had planned it for us and therefore had no control of. I was not a type of person that would take action against violence and any form of abuse. If a person had come to me and tell me they have being raped I would have advised them to pray. I knew there were certain judicial measures that can be taken but my mindset was to always pin everything to God. These classes assisted me in seeing the reality and be prepared how to deal with experiences i encounter. We even learn about HIV and forms of abuse and also relevant doors to knock to if you have experienced any kind of abuse. It wasn’t really a waste of time for me” Sosibo Nqilini from ward 23.

There are many cases of abuse that are not reported due to people’s lack of knowledge and their personal interpretation of life and the experiences of it. Culture and religion somehow also play a role in the perpetuation of social problems. Finding standard normative for communities regardless of religion and culture is imperative to eliminate many social ills. Things that people hear on their daily basis are the most influential when it comes to understanding life and its implications

“I learn that you need to report any kind of abuse you experience because it needs to be dealt with psychologically otherwise it will unconsciously affect the way you behave and relate to other people. These workshop helped me even take steps in helping a young girl in my neighbourhood who for a long time has been a victim of abuse but we did nothing about that as neighbours. We were scared and kept watching on our little corners. The young girl used to sleep outside because her mother was beating her up and even chase her out some days. After having attended these workshops we reached a consensus to report the matter to the CCG (community care giver) and so the matter was followed and handled properly”

The story above was told by an older lady Bathabile Shezi from ward 72. She and her entire neighbourhood had witnessed abuse for a long time but because of ignorance and how self-centred they had become they did not want to involve themselves in other people’s business. In a conversation Bathabile mentioned that it was through a discussion they had during their workshop that she decided not to sit down any more about the abuse she had witnessed for quite a long time.

One of elders who were interviewed said that they had an amazing experience during workshops because in addition to discussing about many things including questioning their own parenting styles but they also got to reconcile with each other. In a long time they had been despising one another across their neighbourhood because of some personal problems and they hadn’t got a platform where they can solve their issues. This ended up being a barrier to effective relationships they should have as people of the same neighbourhood. It had passed on even to their children.

To alter systems in our societies, its best to provide platforms where by communities’ people question the existing system of normative standards and find new and accommodating ways of living. That being said Stepping Stones workshops provided opportunities for participants to examine their values and attitudes towards gender and relationship, to build on their knowledge on aspects of sexuality and HIV&AIDS and to develop skills to help them communicate with others and ensure that other people know exactly what they want.

 

Knowledge Officer

Menzi Hlabisa

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