“Less Skin, We Win!”

Less Skin, We Win! That’s the message that commuters in Cape Town and Johannesburg are getting when they take their taxi ride into work today, as taxis branded with the new Sonke Medical Male Circumcision (MMC) campaign messages took to the streets, encouraging young men in the Western Cape and Gauteng to get circumcised.

Using taxis is a great way to reach large numbers of South Africans with information about campaigns like MMC: there are 16 million taxi commuters weekly of which 59% are under the age of 34. But in addition to those waiting at Taxi Ranks and riding in taxis are the millions of people who pass taxis on the roads each day. Each taxi creates 200 000 opportunities for the message to be seen each month.

Within hours of the first MMC taxi hitting the streets of Cape Town, one of our own staff members (and the MMC Project Co-ordinator at that!) had spotted one on his way to work!

For the moment, there are only a few of these taxis, in specific areas where Sonke is distributing MMC materials, working with partners, and conducting community dialogues and door-to-door campaigns, but in the coming year we will be putting more of these vehicles onto the roads.

Commuters and passers-by who see the taxis are informed that Medical Circumcision reduces men’s chance of getting HIV by 60%. They are also encouraged to SMS the word ‘proud’ to 32759 to get information about free circumcision clinics in their community. And they are also provided with some additional reminders to always use a condom.

Developing the campaign materials

The entire campaign, which includes brochures, posters, t-shirts and murals in addition to the taxis, focuses on MMC as a positive move for men’s health, reducing the risk of HIV, cancer and STIs, with many of the same benefits shared by women (although the HIV risk reduction benefits for women are indirect). Working with students at Artists Proof Studios in Johannesburg, we have tried to balance the need for strong, clear messages that speak directly to our target audience (young men) with the need to ensure that the information is medically accurate and in no way encourages risky behaviour. Add in the need to ensure that the messaging is culturally sensitive and you have quite a complex set of considerations to take into account! It took some time, but the result is something we are all proud of.

Watch this space

We will be increasing the range of our MMC activities next year, including a stronger focus on social media and other forms of innovative communication.

Amongst other things, we will be producing a teen fiction novel including an MMC storyline to reach a younger audience. We will also be using cell-phone technologies to provide before-and-after coaching to men who have signed up for MMC.

A day in the life…

A few times a day, Mr. Dass or one of his drivers drives a taxi into the Mitchell’s Plain taxi rank, waits his turn in line and leaves with a minibus full of people going about their daily lives. What makes his routine different is that his taxi is an ambassador for Sonke’s One Man Can campaign for Medical Male Circumcision (MMC) for HIV prevention. I went to visit Mr. Dass, the owner of the taxi with Mzamo Sidelo, a Sonke One Man Can Trainer based in Cape Town.

We went to scope out the physical and social terrain that this taxi would cover, and hear a few local opinions on MMC. However, the rank was almost deserted of passengers at 10.30 AM, after the morning rush and before schools broke up in the afternoon. It started to rain so we stood under the shelter and ended up talking to some of the few people hanging around the rank – a small group of men and one boy.

When we first asked what their thoughts were on MMC, they mostly just laughed nervously – and a little aggressively. One man chased another around the taxi threatening to “do it [circumcision] for you myself,” – by removing his foreskin in the taxi door! The topic brought out a kind of silliness in them, who, in the time we were there, playfully chased one another with batons and knives. Mzamo and I still wanted to hear some real opinions, though, and pressed on with other questions to see if the messaging was effective and clear.

“How much protection do you have against HIV if you are fully circumcised?” I asked of a talkative, engaged and confident young man. “Um… 60%,” he said, without even looking at the taxi. After some more conversation, I realised that although he ‘played dumb’ when talking with the other men, he actually knew a lot about HIV and preventing infection. I wondered why he did not share this information when talking with the others. I asked the boy, probably about sixteen years old, the same question. He answered correctly after looking at the sign. (My thought: It works!)

Talk about it!

When we asked Mr. Dass if people talk about circumcision in and around his taxi, he replied hesitantly. “Well, yes, people talk. But a lot of people joke about it and don’t take it seriously. But some do. It definitely starts conversation!”

And that’s one of the goals – for now. To introduce the idea and act of medical circumcision into the public sphere and raise awareness of its benefits. This kind of awareness-raising is merely one step in a process of change, a process that we hope individuals will go through and eventually make the decision to get circumcised, for their own health and for a wide range of benefits for their partner.