Siyakha Nentsha demonstrated how life-orientation programs can reduce adolescents’ HIV risk and increase their economic, social, and health skills.
To respond to the social, economic, and health challenges that increasingly place adolescents at an increased risk for HIV/AIDS, the Population Council—in collaboration with local partners and the Isihlangu Health and Development Agency and as part of the ABBA Research Programme Consortium—developed a school-based life-skills program to respond to the unmet needs of young people in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Siyakha Nentsha (isiZulu for "building with young people") was a three-year study aimed at providing vulnerable adolescents with a comprehensive package of skills and context-specific strategies to help them navigate their social and economic environments. Specifically, the study aimed to help young women and men residing in poor, HIV/AIDS-affected communities to:
- Build their economic, social, and health capabilities;
- Strengthen social networks;
- Improve their long-term well-being;
- Limit the threat of high-risk sexual behaviors, teen pregnancy, school dropout, and unemployment; and
- Mitigate the impact of HIV/AIDS including the loss of a parent.
From 2008 to 2012 the Population Council and its partners worked with the Department of Education (DoE) to offer the Siyakha Nentsha program during school hours to 715 students (grades 10 and 11) in seven secondary schools. Using local high school graduates as mentors, the study tested two versions of a participatory, school-based program: one that focused on developing social, health, and stress-reduction skills and a second that included a focus on developing financial skills in addition to the social and health modules. Each version had the same number of total sessions.
Male and female mentors worked in mixed-sex teams of students to develop their knowledge and skills to allow girls and boys to work together, interact socially, and learn to respect one another as colleagues and friends.
While all Siyakha Nentsha participants were more likely to report remaining sexually abstinent—and those who did have sex reported fewer sexual partners—this was particularly true for boys. Siyakha Nentsha boys also showed large improvements in their knowledge of social grants and entitlements available to their families. In general, participants were also more likely to have interacted with financial institutions and attempted to open a savings account. While the financial education component did not appear to have added impact for boys, girls exposed to it reported feeling more socially included in their communities and scored better on a standard cognitive skills test. The Siyakha Nentsha program had a greater impact on boys’ sexual behavior than that of girls but a larger impact on girls’ financial behavior and social wellbeing.
One of the few studies to employ such a multi-sectoral approach, the Siyakha Nentsha project successfully demonstrated that life orientation programs, with a focus on actionable skills, have the potential to:
- Minimize behaviors that increase adolescents’ risk of acquiring HIV;
- Increase financial skills including the ability to access social benefits, interact with financial services, and save money; and
- Improve cognitive abilities.
Moreover, the Health and Welfare Sector Education and Training Authority (the national government body that accredits education and training curriculums) accredited the Siyakha Nentsha curriculum, giving all students who completed the program an asset that could widen their employment opportunities in the future.
Siyakha Nentsha has received national, regional, and international attention as a demonstration project, and its design and approach has been disseminated both in South Africa and throughout sub-Saharan Africa. The Population Council is currently in conversation with the KwaZulu-Natal DoE, the South African Department of Social Development, and various donors on how the project can be scaled-up throughout the country.