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Peer-led Support Groups Empower Adolescents living with HIV to Navigate Stigma with Confidence and Resilience

Meet Angel (pseudonym), a 13-year-old in Tororo District with big dreams of becoming a nurse and spending quality time with loved ones. But amidst her aspirations, she carries a big burden: Angel was born with HIV. “When I turned 11, I discovered my condition and felt scared and alone, unsure of how to live with it,” she shared.

In November 2022, Angel was enlisted to participate in the USAID-Funded OVC North East Activity, organized by the Activity team and TASO, to introduce community-modified support groups. During the meeting, she engaged with other children and adolescents living with HIV, exchanging experiences through storytelling. Despite this, Angel grappled with the fear of revealing her status, potential social rejection, discrimination, and denial, which diminished her self-esteem and intensified her sense of stigma and isolation.

Recognizing the challenges, a social worker and para-social workers devised a model to bolster community support for children living with HIV through peer-led initiatives. Angel was encouraged to join a peer support group in Maliri Parish, Merikit Sub County, consisting of 11 other adolescent peers. Through regular attendance, Angel formed close bonds with her peers, laughing together and providing mutual support through the challenges and triumphs of living with HIV.

“Being part of a peer support group allows us to combat stigma together, fostering a sense of belonging and acceptance,” Angel said. With her peers’ guidance, Angel learned medication management, coping strategies for emotional distress, and techniques to address stigma.

The group also includes caretakers of Children and Adolescents Living with HIV (CALHIV), fostering an environment where they can share experiences and uplift each other. This approach has strengthened the bonds between caregivers and their children, and improved caregiver treatment literacy leading to better health outcomes and viral suppression.

“Whenever I face a setback or feel discouraged, my friends in the group are there to lift me and remind me of my resilience,” Angel added.

As Angel’s confidence thrived, she assumed a leadership role within the group, educating peers about vital topics like viral load monitoring, medication adherence, hygiene practices, and attending clinic appointments. This leadership has strengthened the group; they gather weekly at Angel’s home for their sessions.

Propelled by newfound empowerment, Angel made the courageous decision to confide in her four trusted teachers at school about her HIV status.

With hope, determination, and a supportive network, Angel faces the future with confidence, knowing she is not alone in her HIV journey.

Agnes Tumuheire

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