Today, experts gather in Basel, Switzerland to discuss “A generation at risk: psychosocial support for Africa’s children” at the 2012 symposium of the Novartis Foundation for Sustainable Development (NFSD). The symposium provides healthcare experts the opportunity to assess psychosocial approaches and discuss various interventions that strive to ensure mental health and wellbeing for children in Africa.
UNAIDS estimates that worldwide more than 16.6 million children have been orphaned by HIV and AIDS; 89% of these children live in sub-Saharan Africa. These children often face material hardship, socio-economic disadvantage, social stigma, emotional isolation and psychological trauma, putting an entire generation at risk.
“In many parts of the world, but especially in East and Southern Africa, generations of children and youth are directly confronted with the presence of HIV and AIDS in their families,” says Joseph Jimenez, CEO of Novartis, who opens the meeting. “We want children affected by HIV/AIDS to grow up with dignity, providing them with the same things we want for our own kids – love, and the knowledge that somebody cares.”
Martin Dahinden, Director-General of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and a speaker at the symposium, says: “60% of people in developing countries are less than 25 years old. We want to help ensure that these children and young people can grow up in good health in order to tap their full potential. As this requires to an equal share their physical, mental and social wellbeing, the Swiss development cooperation has been very active in providing psychosocial support since over ten years.”
To help children affected by poverty, conflict, HIV and AIDS, the Novartis Foundation, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) founded REPSSI – the Regional Psychosocial Support Initiative. Since 2002, REPSSI has reached more than 5 million children across eastern and southern Africa through psychosocial support (PSS). REPSSI develops PSS tools such as the Hero Book and Body Map to help children cope with their loss and regain confidence.
“REPSSI is one of the most successful projects the Novartis Foundation has supported in the past 30 years of our existence” Klaus M. Leisinger, Chairman of the Novartis Foundation, and moderator of the symposium, adds. “REPSSI has achieved to change the perception of psychosocial support from something ‘nice to have’ to ‘every child’s right’.”
To demonstrate the positive impact that REPSSI can have, a youth spokesperson, Arthur Lupunga from Zambia, shares his life story with the audience. He reflects on how REPSSI tools helped him open up about his HIV status, improve his health and ultimately become an advocate for access to HIV prevention and treatment, as well as PSS.
Noreen Huni, Executive Director of REPSSI, says: “The impact of HIV and AIDS in the region goes beyond individual tragedies, however. It has affected the development of entire countries and the region as a whole. Thanks to advocacy work of REPSSI and others, governments, international organizations and NGOs have become increasingly aware of the social and emotional needs of vulnerable children and orphans.”
Experts in the field are also lending their perspective to the discussion of psychosocial support. Niklaus Eggenberger of the Swiss Academy for Development (SAD) presents the findings of longitudinal research conducted in five highly AIDS-affected rural communities in Zambia. "It is widely believed that the African child is particularly resilient,” he says. “Our research, however, has shown that while here in the north approximately 10% of children face depression, in rural Zambia, prevalence could be three times as high.”
Lucie Cluver, expert in psychosocial support for young caregivers in southern Africa, adds, “Growing up with secrecy and stigmatization, children in AIDS-affected families are confronted with major negative impacts on mental health, sexual health and education.”
Mariângela Simão, Deputy Executive Director a.i. of UNAIDS, gives an overview of the current HIV/AIDS situation and the pandemic’s impact on children in Africa. Elsbeth Müller, Executive Director of UNICEF Switzerland, talks about the potential and limitations of psychosocial support for vulnerable children in her presentation, while Ruedi Lüthy, Director of the Newlands Clinic in Harare, and Olayinka Omigbodun, Professor of Psychiatry, University of Ibadan Nigeria, present on the need for coordinated efforts that address both physical health and mental health. Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, Executive Director of the Afghan Institute of Learning, provides a different regional perspective of psychosocial support in her engagements for Afghan girls.