Soccer and HIV education may not seem to be a natural fit but Grassroot Soccer (GRS) has proven them to be powerful pairing. So powerful, in fact that The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF) and Madonna’s charitable organization Raising Malawi have partnered up to expand GRS’s reach in Malawi.
“My experience in Africa as a professional soccer player, then as a contestant on Survivor Africa, exposed me to the challenges facing youth in the developing world, such as unemployment, gender inequality and HIV/AIDS,” says GRS co-founder Ethan Zohn. “So, when Dr. Tommy Clark and Kirk Friedrich approached me with this groundbreaking idea to use the power of soccer and the energy of youth to educate, inspire and mobilize communities to improve health, I jumped at the chance to get involved.”
Since 2002, GRS training community-based youth role models in Africa –soccer stars, teachers, and peer educators– to deliver comprehensive health and life-skills education. Soccer-based activities are used to engage young people in difficult but vital conversations about how to protect themselves, their sexual partners and their communities from HIV.
“Soccer is used as a tool because it attracts young people to our program and also helps us break down barriers to discussion of difficult topics related to life and human sexuality,” says Kirk Friedrich, GRS Co-Founder and Executive Director. “By making learning fun and interactive we believe we are able to achieve a deeper level of discussion and build more trust with young people. We also use soccer to create ‘Coaches’ as role models and mentors for young people. It is important for them to see youth from their community as well as global soccer celebrities that are living healthy and productive lives.”
Over the last decade, GRS has demonstrated a unique ability to mobilize young people. The proof is in delivering essential education to 600,000 youth in more than 27 countries. “We have changed high-risk behaviors, increased uptake of life-saving health services, increased knowledge, changed attitudes, and built desperately needed networks of support. We have shown that our programs can be replicated, sustained and scaled, and we have successfully shared our model and methodology with other individuals and organizations that continue to use it effectively,” Friedrich says.
With one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world and a love of soccer, Malawi is a prime target for GRS. ETAF and Madonna’s Raising Malawi are now hoping to bring the program’s proven results to the communities where Raising Malawi recently built 10 schools including the Mulanje region, one of the highest HIV infection areas in the country.
“I’m excited to partner with The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation to expand Grassroot Soccer’s HIV prevention programs in Malawi,” says Madonna. “I’m passionate about education especially and these programs give girls and boys the tools they need to live healthier, more productive lives. Elizabeth Taylor was a role model for many, including myself! She devoted a large part of her life to making the world a better place. I know she would be pleased to see her work continue in the fight against AIDS. ”
ETAF is already active in Malawi, operating five mobile health clinics that deliver testing and treatment with its partner on the ground, GAIA. But working with GRS and Raising Malawi adds prevention to the mix.
“Grassroot Soccer has cracked the code on getting young people in Africa to pay attention to HIV prevention methods,” says ETAF Managing Director Joel Goldman. “I am sure Ms. Taylor is smiling down on our partnership with GRS and how it extends into the 10 schools her friend Madonna built as well as the orphanage she supports where she adopted her son.”