“When the HIV pandemic hit, it dealt with the older generation,” says Charlize Theron. “Nobody was dealing with high school kids between 10 and 18 in Umkhanyakude, South Africa. There was no HIV/AIDS testing in schools. No sex education.”
Africa Outreach is Theron’s 2-year-old program that provides services to 10,000 students in the district of Umkhanyakude. “It’s the highest HIV area in the world. We have seven mobile clinics, and more are continually being built as we get the funding. These units are very effective as this area is very rural.”
High school students now receive one scheduled visit a year with a nurse, attend a session with an HIV counselor and go through workshops on health education. Although the focus is the students, Africa Outreach also offers community members social services and basic medical care.
“These kids become leaders and started educating their friends and families outside of schools. They are sharing what they’re learning through this program,” says Theron.
“The fact that I grew up on a rural farm means a lot to these kids, because I grew up in the same environment that they did,” says the actress. “These young girls and boys look at me and say, ‘If you can do it, then I can do it.’ ”
Dr. Michael Bennish makes his rounds in mobile units that provide care in deeply rural areas. “We go to schools that are on dirt roads that are often inaccessible when it rains,” he says. “We have very rugged units that can access the most remote schools, on the steepest roads, in the worst weather.”
With the help of Africa Outreach, teachers have seen a substantial drop in pregnancy rates. “Students are now focused on school work as their health and emotional needs are being attended to. We have given them the tools to take control of their lives,” adds Bennish. “Knowledge about what safe sex is. Strategies for not being coerced into having sex. Condoms, if they decide they want to have sex. And medicines to help them stay healthy.”