Education Sector Response to HIV and AIDS
EENET Asia Editorial Team
Every year throughout Asia nearly half of all new HIV infections are amongst school-aged children and youth below the age of 25. While the vast majority of international funds in the past decades have been spent on providing anti-retroviral drugs for those who are already infected, new generations of children are growing up without sufficient knowledge about how to protect themselves against HIV. In a recent survey, the UNGASS Indonesia Country Report for 2008-09 published the percentage of young women and men aged 15-24 who werw able to both correctly identify ways of preventing sexual transmission of HIV and who reject major misconceptions about HIV transmission to be at a concerning low rate of 14.3%.
The investment in anti-retroviral drug treatment for persons who are living with HIV has proven to be extremely successful. As a result of these efforts hundreds-of-thousands of lives have been saved, and those who are living with HIV now have near “normal” life expectancy, but the prevailing stigma and discrimination continues to keep a majority of these people from receiving proper medication and care, as well as opportunities for a job both in the private and public sector. This same stigma and discrimination is a major contributing factor to the spread of the epidemic hindering the enabling environment and restraining those living with the virus from sharing their experience to educate others on prevention.
What can the education sector learn from the successes of these health interventions? How can we make the education sector response equally effective? How can we help young people to make informed and wise decisions related to drugs and sex? How can we prevent HIV from plaguing new generations of youth? How can we reduce stigma and discrimination of those who are affected by HIV?
We discussed these issues with Ahmed Afzal, who is the HIV and AIDS & School Health Consultant for the UNESCO Cluster Office to Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Timor Leste.
UNESCO’s global mandate within the UNAIDS Division of Labour on AIDS promotes the EDUCAIDS Framework, which is Global UN Initiative on Education and HIV and AIDS. EDUCADS, led by UNESCO, focuses on the role of education in preventing HIV transmission and on efforts to reduce the impact of the epidemic on the education sector. UNESCO coordinates UN interagency efforts and programmes related to AIDS and education using Regular Programme funds in the Education Sector and Extrabudgetary funds such as UNAIDS UBW (Unified Budget and Work-Plan).
The main goal of the UNESCO Cluster Office Jakarta is therefore to strengthen culturally appropriate, scientifically and strategically sound education sector responses to HIV and AIDS in Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Timor Leste.
What practical measures has UNESCO been able to implement so far in the five cluster countries?
We have been developing advocacy and teacher training materials as well as translating awareness materials into different languages used throughout the region together with key stakeholders. It is extremely important that HIV prevention education material is made available in national languages to ensure that teachers, school directors, parents, and the children themselves have access to updated and correct material in a language that they can understand to prevent misunderstandings and misinformation. We have also been working with secondary schools throughout Indonesia to promote HIV prevention education. We are also planning to reach 10,000 university students with HIV prevention education through interactive e-learning distance course programmes. However, it is evident that much more needs to be done to halt the spread of HIV throughout Asia.
In addition we are also supporting the ministries of education in all the cluster countries to mark the International AIDS Day on 1st December. This is done in close collaboration with the National Commissions for UNESCO in the respective countries and the civil society organisations. These events help to keep the media as well as the public aware of the dangers of HIV and of the importance of effective prevention and response programmes.
What are the main challenges you face when talking to education planners and teachers about HIV prevention education?
HIV prevention education is challenging as it touches on cultural and religious sensitivities. The promotion of condoms, as one of many means of HIV prevention, is sensitive, as many teachers and parents believes that the distribution and promotion of condoms indirectly encourages young people to become sexually active. However, we know from research throughout the world that promotion of condoms, when done as part of culturally and age appropriate sex education initiatives, promotes responsible sexual behaviour among youth and often delays the age of sexual debut.
“The children in my class work hard in school. Their parents have high expectations but not all of these can be fulfilled. The children are looking for different ways to escape and the temptations are many. So to prevent the children from getting into trouble we teach about the dangers of drugs. Many parents do not realise the pressure their children are under and wonder why we teach about drug- and HIV prevention in school. But it is our duty as teachers to prepare children for the world the way it is, not the way we wished it was!”
The voice of a teacher from Manila in the Philippines
The feeling that HIV is an infection that mainly affects “fringes” of the society unfortunately prevails among many key stakeholders. However, the fact is that large percentages of youth experiment with behaviour and practices that will put them at risk for HIV infections. Peer pressure is often extremely strong during these formative years. Therefore, unless young people are educated about the consequences of high risk behaviour they are less likely to protect themselves and make wise and informed decisions about sex and drugs.
“When I was 13 years old I tried drugs for the first time. All my friends were doing drugs so I wanted to try it as well. I spoke to my parents about drugs and wanted to ask them some questions, but all they said was that I should not talk about it, because if I used drugs I would go to hell. This wasn’t what I needed to hear. I wanted hard facts. I wanted to know more about drugs so that I could make an informed decision myself, but this was never given to me, in school or at home. Soon after starting to smoke drugs and taking pills I soon started injecting drugs. My friends and I shared needles and syringes. Seven years ago I found out that I was HIV positive. I do not know when I was infected, or how. I have been on anti-retroviral drug for a few years and my health is fine. My biggest problem at the moment is to get a job. Not many are willing to hire a person who is living with HIV, even if my status is not affecting my health or ability to work.
I wish I had known more about the dangers of drugs when I was a teenager. It is therefore important that schools and parents talk to children and youth about drugs in an effort to combat HIV and other drug related infections. Currently the response of too many is simply to ignore the fact of what is taking place in schools and homes across Indonesia."
The voice of a young man living with HIV in West Java, Indonesia
In parts of the region the belief in “takdir” or destiny is strong and affects every aspect of life. An HIV infection is sometimes seen as a part of one’s destiny and as a punishment by God. This fatalistic approach often prevents those who engage in high-risk behaviours and practices from taking proper precautions. Similar beliefs are common in indigenous religions, cultures and traditions in Papua which is the part of Indonesia that is most affected by the HIV epidemic.
Many religious leaders are negative to the promotion of condoms as they believe it promotes promiscuity and as it goes against established religious teachings. How do you plan to counteract these attitudes and ensure that youth learn about safer sex and means and ways of protecting themselves against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections?
This is a challenge but there is room for optimism. It is important to realise that people do not have sex just because condoms are available. However, if they use a condom when they have sex it will reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies and young people are less likely to get infected with HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. It is important to reach young people with this message. This is why the e-learning programme for university students is so important, as it will reach more than 10,000 young people, many of these young men and women will become practicing professionals (such as teachers, directors, educational authorities) when they have graduated from the university, which will help making the education sector response against HIV and AIDS more effective in the future. Furthermore, in Indonesia for example, the religious leaders have established a network called "Interna" (The Indonesian Interfaith Network on HIV and AIDS) which regularly meets to overcome these challenges. In a recent workshop, they met to adapt a module they received from Africa on how to do HIV prevention education for Religious Leaders, under support from World Vision International. In another workshop, the group met to focus on finding the Quranic verses and Hadiths statements on non-stigma and discrimination, love and compassion and helping the people who needs help and support. Religious leaders in most of South East Asian countries have significant influence in the daily life of the average individual and such groups are an opportunity for education and information dissemination.
We recognize that abstinence and being faithful are pivotal preventive measures. In addition, we also recognize that the usage of condoms is also effective preventive tool in the case of discordant couples.
Statement from International pre-conference Muslim Workshop on HIV/AIDS - Bangkok (2004)
We hope that UNESCO and all other organisations working within the field of HIV prevention and response succeed with their work, as effective HIV prevention education programmes will the save the lives of future generations of Asian youth.
For further information please contact Mr. Ahmed Afzal via or visit www.unesco.org/en/aids
You can also contact the EENET Asia Editorial Team via