Swaziland recently surpassed Botswana as the country with the world's highest known rate of HIV/AIDS infection - 42% of the 958,000 population - and when the average life expectancy dropped to a lowly 32 recently the country's Rugby Union President Michael Collinson felt compelled to act.
Collinson, a proud Yorkshireman, ex-paratrooper and mining engineer, arrived in Swaziland in Southern Africa in 1985 and quickly fell in love with the country but has been dismayed by the recent downturn in the health and future prospects of its children. With 31% of all youth classified as OVCs - Orphans & Vulnerable Children - it is projected that without bold action, the frightening HIV/AIDS statistics will worsen by up to 25% by 2010.
At the turn of the year Collinson founded the SKRUM charity (Swaziland Kids Rugby Mission) aiming to give the children of Swaziland much-needed education in sex awareness, while introducing them to a sport inclusive to all - rugby.
"We're using rugby to go into the schools, coach the youngsters in rugby, and get over the message on the HIV/AIDS and gender awareness issues, which are pretty serious in Swaziland," he told Total Rugby.
"Forty-six per cent of the population is HIV-positive and we're finding here that the youngsters don't know how, where or when they can be afflicted with HIV, so we're passing a message on about how you can get it, how you can't get it and the message is different at each age group.
"The older ones it's safe sex, the younger ones it's 'how you can, how you can't' because they really don't know and nobody in Swaziland is really telling them, apart from saying 'HIV is bad'."
Collinson and his SKRUM team have found that rugby offers the perfect vehicle for engaging the country's school children with a potentially difficult topic and has plans to take the charity to neighbouring countries in the future.
Fat, thin, tall, small
"If you look at how rugby is and played and how it works, it's perfect for what we want to do," he said.
"Fat, thin, tall, small, that's our motto here. Everybody can play rugby so we can get across to everybody, both boys and girls, so that's why we're using rugby. They're there, they're happy they can see what it's all about and then we can give them the message."
From a standing start in January 2008, Collinson was hoping to reach between two and three each week but in reality the demand for the charity's work has far outstripped the current supply chain.
"We were looking to reach 137 schools in a year and last week we reached our one hundredth school, in June! Every school we've been to has signed up to the proogramme, every headmaster, teacher has given us positive feedback. The Sports Council is positive, the educational system here is positive, Youth council positive," he said.
To help SKRUM go to SKRUM.org
Currently ranked 84th in the world, Swaziland's rugby could also greatly benefit.
The charity visits groups of schools within easy traveling distance, creating the possibility of "mini leagues" between the schools and hopefully the formation of clubs in the future. The charity also conducts coaching, officiating and Health Education courses throughout the Kingdom so that teachers will possess the necessary skills to enable them to carry on both the rugby and health education.
"Rugby is the fastest-growing sport in Swaziland, and of course it's a bit selfish because I love rugby, but the Swazis love the sport, it's amazing how they've taken to the game and my aim is for Swaziland to be the third best team in sub-Saharan Africa and everybody else at SKRUM agrees with me.
"We expect big things in the very near future from Swaziland."
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