The Dynamic Role of Student Affairs / Student Welfare and Sustainability

Honorable Rector
Vice Rector
Members of the Southern African Association for Counselling and Development in Higher Education
Good Evening,

It is an honor to be here tonight to speak before a group engaged in the critical work of guiding Southern Africa’s young people to be a better, more prosperous, and healthier future. I need to start with some caveats. First, I was invited to speak tonight on ” The Dynamic Role of Student Affairs, Student Welfare and Sustainability.” The area of student affairs is unique enough to the academic world that I feel ill-equipped to speak to that particular part of my assignment. I do, however, see much greater convergence between your work on student welfare and sustainability and our Embassy’s work on youth development and will be focusing my remarks in this area. Second, while I know yours is a regional organization, I feel best equipped to talk either about the United States’ experience or our activities in Swaziland. I hope that those of you who have come in from elsewhere in the region will recognize themes that may translate well in your own country’s context.

It’s difficult to be a young person starting out today, not just in Swaziland and Southern Africa, but through out the world. In the U.S., the Millenials or those between the ages of 17 and 34, may be the first generation who expect to fare worse economically than their parents. Here in Southern Africa, people face a number of different challenges. In sub-Saharan Africa, young people under 24 years of age make up the largest part of the population, in what is often referred to as the youth bulge. In Swaziland, as of 2014 nearly 59 percent of the population was under the age of 24. The issue of the youth bulge has proven problematic in countries with high levels of unemployment and poverty, and limited educational opportunities. Layer over this the statistics around young women between the ages of 15 and 24 that show Swaziland with the unfortunate distinction of having the highest rate of new HIV infections in the world for this population segment. Layer again the astonishing levels of gender-based violence reported by this population segment – more than 49 percent in Swaziland, nearly 34 percent in Malawi, and nearly 32 percent in Zambia – and the challenges look truly insurmountable. In many ways, I do not envy your roles as some of the key people charged with helping these young people navigate terrain that looks so un-promising. But as Theodore Roosevelt once said: “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” I cannot imagine work that is more worth doing than the investments you are making the future of this country, this sub-region, and this continent.

I’d like to dig down a bit on one of the areas of concern around the youth bulge – unemployment. In the U.S. while employment has recovered for the economy writ large, youth unemployment remains at nearly 11 percent, more than double the overall rate. In Swaziland, the youth unemployment rate in our 15 -24 age range, in 2014, was 42.6 percent, among the highest on the continent. Young graduates find themselves faced with limited opportunity in an economy that has stalled and a business environment that favor elites rather than innovators. This contributes to a brain drain where many of the brightest and best educated leave for opportunities elsewhere, meaning employers, in turn, have difficulty filling key positions. There are actually critical shortages of workers in certain fields, particularly engineering, accountancy and technical sectors. This is where your role as counsellors comes in, not only in encouraging students with the right aptitudes to study in fields where there are critical shortages. Connecting young people with mentors, including in technical and vocational programs, could also help tremendously in setting young people on a more promising employment path.

As counselors, you may also help students to find new ways to use their skills within their own countries. One way to tackle high unemployment is to create an environment that enables individuals to start a business, there  needs to be a welcoming environment. An openness to and encouragement of innovation are important too. Unfortunately, Swaziland ranks low in World Bank Ease of Doing Business Index and it also has low ranking in the Global Innovation Index. Creating an environment that encourages innovation will require fewer constraints created by the need to accomodate elites. Even if that environment comes into being, every business needs some degree of startup funds, and sourcing such funds can be a particular challenge for young people. In 2008, Swaziland established a Youth Enterprise Fund, intended to provide loans to young Swazis trying to start businesses. By 2011, there were complaints that such loans were only going to already established businesses, or were being distributed based on an applicant’s connections. By 2014, the government was planning action against nearly 200 defaulters. By 2015, a consultant recommended a complete overhaul of the Fund, noting loopholes in regualtions governing the Fund’s operations, problems in the manner in which loans were allocated, and the involvement of politicians in lending decisions. In 2015, the Fund did not receive a budget allocation. At that point, the trail on what could have been a valuable tool in empowering the youth seems to have gone cold.

I suspect the way this played out does not sound unfamiliar to any of us. This sounds like a commendable idea, but the implementation does not seem to have matched the initiative. It could be that many young people simply do not have the experience to start their own business, no matter how small. The overall state of experience to start their own business, no matter how small. The oveall state of the Swazi economy also worked against these young people, some of whom noted that people just did not have the money to buy their goods. With 63 percent of Swazis living below the poverty line, it is easy to understand why it would be difficult for young business people to find markets. But even with the unhappy ending to this particular initiative, young entrepreneurs and innovators have proven that they can survive in even a harsh and unforgiving environment. From Khulekani Msweli of Jerempaul to Claudia Castallanos Jiminez of the Black Mamba Chili company, young people in Swaziland have proven that they can start a business and make it thrive. Claudia, who formed Black Mamba with her husband, was selected by the U.S. Embassy to participate in the African Women’s Entreprenuership Program in the U.S. to help her grow her company. She is committed to using only local sources for her products and ensuring fair wages for employees and suppliers. It is small businesses like this that will make a difference in the economy of Swaziland and help ensure growth and poortunity that will, in turn, create a better future for Swaziland’s young people.

On the economic empowerment side, I’d finally like to raise the important potential role of cooperatives in providing a vehicle for young entreprenuers. Cooperatives pools the resources of several individuals who might not be able to sustain a business of their own. With a collaborative approach, individuals are better positioned to contribute to the group’s efforts and benefit from its successes. This type of endevor has been known to work well in the areas of farming or sewing or handicrafts businesse. In Swaziland, the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Trade is finding ways to encourage the development of community cooperatives, both by bringing different cooperatives together to share best practices and providing access to financial institutions. Cooperatives can also make important contributions to the Sustainable Development Goals. This is an area that deserves greater exploration as Swaziland, perhaps countries facing similar economic  challenges, tries to chart to a course to stronger, more equitable development.

As we look at the external factors – the economy and employment prospects – that shape a young person’s future, we also need to look at the seemingly individual factor of health. Each individual’s health is theirs alone, but wellness and disease can extent far beyond one person. Earlier I mentioned the high levels of HIV transmission in Swaziland and the disproportionate effect that has on young people, especially young women. There have been many positive steps taken to deal with the crises. The numbers of people who are HIV positive who are receiving life-saving treatment has increased sharply. There has also been a significant reduction in mother to child transmission of the virus. But these have not been enough to significantly halt the epidemic. More innovative approaches are needed to break the cycle of HIV transmission. Young women are particularly important to breaking this cycle, as a number of factors converge to heighten their vulnerability. I think most of you have heard of, and probably witnesses on your campusses, the phenomenon of “blessers,” which is often portayed as young women seeking luxuries through their older partners, but can in reality be an act of desperation to access the financial support that will keep them in school. A high percentage of these young women become infected by their older partners, but later in life they seek partners from their own age cohort. These partners become infected and later in life they seek a younger partner. An so the cycle continues. There are medical intervention that will help to break the cycle of transmisssion, including voluntary medical male circumcision and getting all HIV positive individuals onto treatment. But empowering young women to make and sustain informed decisions about their futures and their bodies is an investment that will provide benefits well beyond good health outcomes.

One way that we are trying to support this population is through a program known as DREAMS, which was established by the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS relief (PEPFAR). DREAMS stands for Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, and Mentored. Women bear the largest burden of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, comprising 38 percent of all HIV infected adults. The epidemic has also left many orphaned and vulnerable children. The DREAMS program focuses on young girls and women from ages 10 to 34. The goals of the DREAMS program are to address the structural drivers that directly or indirectly increase girls’ and women’s vulnerability to contracting HIV, includig poverty, gender inequality, and sexual violence, and to keep girls in secondary school. DREAMS is active in 19 districts (tinkhundla) in Swaziland and offers services such as HIV testing and counseling, condom promotion and provision, post-violence care, school-based HIV and violence, and parenting/caregiver programs. There are DREAMS activities across the Southern African region. We are working to support a portion of the young women coming up through the educational system. People like you are in a position to reach even more.

The Peace Corps is a similarly engaged in working to empower girls, both working directly with girls to raise their awareness and build their skills through clubs called GLOW (Girls Leading Our Worls), and with boys through BRO (Brothers Reaching Out) to raise their awarenss around gender issues and develop them as allies in the struggle for equality. These clubs focus on empowering Swazi youth as leaders and active decision makers in their own health and livelihoods. GLOW and BRO clubs focus on youth  from ages 9 -19. The clubs are established by a Peace Corps Volunteer and a local counterpart; the counterparts receive training to help them work successfully with young people. the focus on sexual reproductive health / HIV prevention and gender issues. GLOW was started in Swaziland in 2010 and there are currently 77 active clubs in communities all across the country. Two-thirds of these clubs are led solely by GLOW Counselor, who are Swazi women passionate about gender equality and the importance of educating the next generation of girls. The other third are run by both a GLOW counselor and a Peace Corps Volunteer. Over 1,800 girls and women are involved in GLOW clubs in Swaziland.

BRO Swaziland started in 2015 and the idea behind BRO is that change cannot come solely from empowered women. BRO aims to educate Swaziland’s young men and women. there are now nearly 50 BRO clubs established across the country reaching about 1, 000 boys and young men and the program continues to expand as Peace Corps Volunteers enter new communities. The goal of both GLOW abd BRO Clubs is to become sustainable when the Peace Corps Volunteer leave the country.

There is another topic I would like to speak about tonight, one that isn’t often discussed, and that is the need for mental health counseling. I know there is stigma associated with receiving mental health services. This needs to change. There is no shame in admitting that one need help. Many people, young people especially, are facing daunting events in their lives such as the loss of a parent to AIDS, gender based violence, or the difficulty members of the LGBTI community can have finding acceptance. There is a shortage of qualified professionals offering these services. This is another area where you as members of the counselling community can help. You are uniquely positioned to identify students who are struggling and could benefit from mental health counseling. You are uniquely positioned to advocate for appropiate resources to help them effectively deal with their problems. Sometimes you will encounter young women who have been victims of gender based violence. The temptation may be to say this is a personal matter and outsiders should not not be involved. If the case involves a married couple, some will suggest that it is more important to maintain the marriage than to demand justice, or that highlighting such abuse will bring dishonor to a family or an institution, or that highlighting such abuse will bring dishonor to a family or an institution, or that the church demands that people remain in a marriage than to demand justice, or that highlighting such abuse will bring dishonor to a family or an institution, or that the church demands that people should remain in a marriage until death – a death that could come at the hands of the abuser. Peole in the U.S. still grapple with these concerns, but more and more people, including church leaders, are learning to speak up when they experience abuse, suspect abuse is occuring, or are asked for guidance by victims of intimate partner violence. The willingness to discuss the problem can have an impact. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, cases of violence against female intimate partners declined from nearly 1600 per 100, 000 people in 1993 to under 600 pers 100,000 in 2013. These statistics are still way to high, but the trend line is at least moving in a better direction. Once again, you are in a unique position to start changing attitudes by encouraging people in abusive relationships to come forward and helping them to find help. Here in Swaziland, you have an excellent resource in the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGGA), and I hope you will reach out to them for advice and guidance.

I have a story to share about just such a situation. Newspapers earlier this year carried stories about a young Swazi woman who was a student at one of the local universities. She was married to an abusive husband. She went to the police and reported the abuse. The police arrested her husband, but he was quickly released on bail. Upon his release, he waited for her outside her campus home and then he tried to kill her and himself. She survived but was badly maimed. the husband did not survive. If this young woman had received guidance on resources from possible shelter arrangements to legal assistance, it is possible this tragedy could have been avoided.

So I come back to where I began: It’s difficult to be a young person starting out today. I’ve only touched on a few of the formidable challenges that will require all of us working together to come up with innovative solutions, especially in finding ways to help young people have the futures they deserve. That said, I think maybe I need to do a follow up speech somewhere on the many exciting developments – from opportunities provided by the internet to incredible advances in health care – that can make this such an incredible time to be moving into adulthood. You as counsellors have a unique role to play, and you have an unprecedented opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the students you interact with. I hope that you are coming away from all of your sessions this week with new ideas, new networks, and renewed energy to continue with the work that Teddy Roosevelt would call work worth doing – helping the young people of this region overcome hurdles and build success for both themselves and their countries. Thank you.