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Wits Business School, University of the Witwatersrand

Report on workplace HIV/AIDS peer educators in South African companies

Dr David Dickinson

Wits Business School, University of the Witwatersrand


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Executive summary

This report provides a benchmark of workplace HIV/AIDS peer educators in South Africa and addresses a number of critical issues for workplace based peer education.

The research was conducted in five large South African companies with a total workforce of over 120,000 permanent and non-permanent employees. The companies have approximately 1,780 active peer educators (a ratio of one peer educator to 69 employees). The research consisted of interviews with 29 ‘key players’ involved in the companies’ HIV/AIDS programmes; a questionnaire sent out to all peer educators of which 614 were returned; interviews with 75 peer educators across the country; and, participatory observation.

This constitutes the most extensive research project into workplace HIV/AIDS peer educators of its kind in South Africa or globally.

The report documents the profile of peer educators, noting the over representation of women, and African women in particular, within the ranks of peer educators when compared with the overall profile of the companies’ workforce. Attention is also drawn to the symbolically important dearth of peer educators from the ranks of top and senior management.

Approximately half of peer educators are volunteers and over 20 percent are elected by their co-workers. The different reasons for becoming peer educators appear to be stable over time, suggesting that there is a need to learn to work with both volunteer and elected peer educators.

Training is being carried out, although there are gaps in refresher training. While the training is often good and well received, there are ways in which this could be improved.

Peer educators are motivated by a concern for others. There is, however, a lively debate as to whether they should be rewarded for what they do. Calls for remuneration, which may emerge, will probably be based on conceptions of fairness and respect and need to be handled sensitively.

Peer educators conduct a great deal of work, not all of it easily visible. The vast majority conduct formal presentations and have informal discussions with other employees, other people at work and with members of their community. Estimations of this activity provide insight into the appropriate ratio of peer educators to employees and to gauge the potential contribution to the national response to HIV/AIDS. A conservative estimate produces the potential of more than 20 million conversations about HIV/AIDS per year - assuming a national peer educator strength of 150,000.

In addition to the forms in which activity is conducted, the report identifies a number of different roles carried out by peer educators. These are:

  • The Influencers
  • The Advisers
  • The Stigma Busters
  • The Normalisers
  • The Sex Talkers
  • The Family Builders
  • The Condom Kings
The organisation of peer educators within companies and between companies ranges widely. HIV/AIDS managers and their programmes are under resourced.

Most, but not all, peer educators have access to basic materials necessary for their work. The provision of working time for peer education clearly increases activity in the workplace. There are mixed signals concerning the level of support received from supervisors and line managers. HIV/AIDS training for line managers clearly helps in this regard. A disturbing ‘gap’ between peer educators and unions was identified.

Peer educators meet with other peer educators in their immediate workplaces and find this useful. There are few company-wide meetings of peer educators and non across companies. Meeting with other peer educators is linked to increased activity and sustainability. Meeting with other peer educators also assists in problem solving. Suggestions as to how this process can be further facilitated are made.

The local environments within which peer educators operate can be very different to that outlined in company policies. This is often linked to production pressures. Working successfully as peer educators in these areas is often job related. Empowering peer educators to deal with this barrier needs to be specific to company structures rather than generic motivation.

We need to think beyond race, gender and occupation in understanding the concept of ‘peer’. Peer educators must be flexibly in dealing with a range of views and beliefs. They are showing remarkable ability in this regard. For example, the question of age status has been successfully responded to by some peer educators.

Drawing a spectrum that ranges between extremes of ‘activism’ and ‘professionalism,’ on which peer educations can be located, helps us to better conceptualise peer education. Activism is a critical resource, but should not be relied upon exclusively, while over-professionalizing of peer education should be avoided.

There is a danger that HIV/AIDS will re-racialise the workplace. This should be countered.

Activity by workplace HIV/AIDS peer educators in the community is extensive and goes beyond formal company programmes. This diversity of activity should be acknowledged as a major contribution to the national response to HIV/AIDS.

In drawing together these findings, the purpose of this report is to strengthen companies’ peer educator programmes and help contribute to an effective response to AIDS in South Africa.

How this report works:

The report brings together the key findings of the research at five workplaces in South Africa. It contains 15 sections covering various aspects of peer education. At the end of each section is a list of key findings and recommendations to assist organisations in taking back elements of the report to their workplaces. References, acronyms and terminology used, and a full list of references can be found at the end of the report.

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