Giggs humbled by bravery of South Africa's sufferers

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Manchester United legend tells Mark Ogden in a Cape Town township that he is eager to use his status to add weight to the continent's fight against HIV virus

Raw admiration is etched across Ryan Giggs' face. Phumzile, a young man living with HIV, has just produced a brief video diary detailing the road he has travelled since discovering his illness and overcoming the stigma attached to it – still a huge obstacle in South Africa – by revealing his status to his family.

Giggs sits alongside Phumzile in the spartan classroom of a comprehensive school in Gugulethu, a township 15km outside Cape Town. The Manchester United midfielder has met Nelson Mandela and witnessed some of football's greatest players at close hand, yet his facial expression when he turns to Phumzile at the end of his story betrays a humbled man in the presence of someone of true substance. "Seeing and hearing the lad's story showed what bravery is all about and what being a man is about," Giggs said. "He shared what he has been through and that took so much courage.

"Just talking to a few people is daunting at the best of times, but his story was unbelievable and it has a massive effect on you. He was telling me about it and he probably won't ever see me again, but to be brave enough to tell his family and his community, well..."

Phumzile is one of an estimated 5.4m people in South Africa living with HIV. That accounts for 14 per cent of the world Aids population and underlines the efforts needed to stem the spread of the virus in the country.

Men are the drivers of the virus in South Africa, where one of the largest and most tragic outlets for it is the rape and sexual abuse of young girls. In a society where women are still not viewed as equals, the promiscuity of men, particularly in the poverty-stricken townships, has led to HIV growing at an alarming rate. The stigma attached breeds a reluctance to be tested and a lack of disclosure once it has been diagnosed, factors which emphasise Phumzile's courage in not only admitting his status, but emerging as somebody willing to discuss the virus.

Giggs added: "From what I saw of the video, Phumzile's family appeared to have helped him, but I wanted to ask him how his friends reacted towards him, what kind of stigma he has, because there is still a stigma attached to HIV in Africa.

"When you get here and hear him speak about his experiences, it brings it to you first-hand. It's very different to seeing it on the television back home. It's close up and it has a real effect on you."

By discovering his status, Phumzile was able to access the retroviral medication that has enabled him to rebuild his life, to the extent where he recently became a father to a boy who, joyously, was born HIV negative.

"Disclosure brings freedom," Phumzile admitted to Giggs. "And by teaching people about my status, I can help others to enjoy the same benefits as me. My life is now stress-free because I do not hide my status or have to live with the consequences that would bring. The more open you are, the more comfortable your life can be. When I went to my support group for the first time, there were 20 women there, but no guys. That is why I set up a support group for men, to help other fathers like me and hopefully help the schoolkids."

The Sonke Gender Justice project, which began in February 2006, attempts to address the social aspects of the HIV pandemic by focusing on the gender issues in South Africa, by re-shaping attitudes between the sexes and encouraging more respect for women. Before workshops staged by Sonke, 100 per cent of respondents believed that they had the right, as men, to decide when to have sex with their partners. That figure fell to 75 per cent after the workshops.

Giggs is hopeful that his participation will help. He said: "The message of being a positive male role model is an important one to put across, especially in South Africa, because there is still an attitude and perception that men are more important than women. There is a real personal value to this for me, especially when there are children involved. Because of the standing of United and my status as a footballer, the kids here listen to you and we can get further than any teacher or politician when it comes to getting a message across. That's because they have seen us on TV and they regard us as heroes. If a teacher was doing the talking, it's only natural that the kids would probably switch off after five minutes, but they really take it on board when they see us and hear us talking."

Giggs has spent eight years working with Unicef and was named an ambassador two years ago. In Soweto in 2006 he fronted the "Men As Partners" project, while in Guangzhou last year he met children battling to overcome the HIV stigma in China.

With family roots stretching to Sierra Leone, Giggs is keen to develop his work with Unicef by fronting the bid to halt the rise of HIV there, an initiative he helped launch last month, and he says he may travel there during this season to provide a high-profile face for the campaign.

Giggs said: "I've not been to Sierra Leone yet, but it's somewhere that I want to visit because my family, on my dad's side, can be traced back there. That is something we have spoken about, going to Freetown and doing something for Unicef.

"Last year was my first year without internationals after retiring from Wales duty, so the idea was to rest and I didn't want to do it [Freetown] last year, but I think I'm going to do it this year. I will get involved in more projects like this as the years go on. I've done things on pre-season tours before, but we have talked about doing more. It is something I enjoy and you can see it has a massive effect on people."

With Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Bryan Robson following Sir Bobby Charlton into ambassadorial roles for United, Giggs' future may yet see a greater involvement in similar projects, but after breaking Charlton's appearance record for the club during the Champions League final against Chelsea in May, Giggs says his immediate ambition is to further prolong his on-field Old Trafford career.

"I'm just going to enjoy the season and see what happens after that," Giggs says. "I can't hide from the fact that I will be 35 later this year, but I try to look after myself and use my experience by playing different positions than I used to.

"I don't know what I am going to do when I finish playing, though. Bryan Robson has just taken the ambassadorial role, similar to Sir Bobby Charlton's role over the years. I've taken my coaching badges because I want to stay in the game in some capacity, be it coaching or managing, but I will have to start thinking about it a lot more seriously at some point. I am thinking ahead, but you can't predict the future. A lot of people just fall into jobs, so you can't predict what you are going to do."

To donate to UNICEF's campaign "Unite for Children, Unite against Aids", please visit: www.unicef.org.uk/manudonate

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