This is part of a collaborative effort to address the explosive combination of acute food shortages and the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the country, UNICEF Country Representative Dr Stella Goings told PlusNews.
Since December 2002, about 54 drama performances have been conducted at emergency food distribution points in rural areas in the Southern Province, after 200 performers were trained on basic facts of HIV/AIDS.
This was an opportunity to "zero in" on people who might be forced to engage in high-risk sexual behaviour while struggling to cope with the impact of the disease and rising food prices, Goings said.
The performances have been designed to provide HIV/AIDS affected households, particularly orphans and women, with basic information in a form they can relate to and easily understand. Trained counsellors are also available at the food distribution sites.
UN agencies and NGOs working on the project had recognised that food aid beneficiaries were an important group to target with such information, Goings noted.
The project seeks to hit 714 food distribution points, each reaching about 1,500 vulnerable people.
"People are there all day, waiting to receive their food and while they are waiting, they are able to watch these sketches. These provoke discussions among them and will move them to action," Doras Chirwa, CARE Zambia HIV/AIDS coordinator told PlusNews.
Initially, the initiative focused on the performances and pamphlets and cartoons, and not condom distribution. "Now after performances, people are asking 'Where are the condoms we were told about?'," Chirwa added. Plans are now underway to distribute condoms at the sites.
To further spread the message, a mobile video truck organised by the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and UNICEF will soon be making the rounds at food distribution points and surrounding communities. This intervention aims to sensitise the rest of the community about HIV/AIDS.
So far, the integration of these activities into food aid, has been met with an "overwhelming response". "When I visited some of these sites, people have told us that clinics are too busy to tell them how to cope, they really appreciate this information," Chirwa said.
The project also complemented the oral tradition of communicating and educating, Goings noted. "In Zambia, if you want to have a successful activity, do it in a drama - more people retain information that way."
But despite high levels of HIV/AIDS knowledge and awareness in the country, the vital step is whether that had been translated into behavioural change.
"The critical acid test will be reduced HIV/AIDS prevalence rates," Goings said. She pointed out that "the anecdotal evidence suggests [the project] is making a difference".
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