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Silences in HIV/AIDS education

[Malawi] Two children in the Senzani Area Development Program in Malawi.
HIV/AIDS infections in Malawi are one of the highest in the world.
Young girls are being forced into sexual relations to pay off debts (World Vision\Jon Warren)

HIV/AIDS education in Kenyan schools has failed young people. Attempts to discuss HIV/AIDS and sexual relations in the classroom have been constrained by social and cultural taboos, leaving young people at risk, a new study has found.

"There are a number of silences in communication around HIV/AIDS in schools," the ActionAid study, "The Sound of Silence", noted.

Despite the inclusion of HIV/AIDS in school syllabi, "selective teaching" often took place, the survey conducted in Nyanza province, in western Kenya and Tamil Nadu state in India found.

Frightened of parental disapproval - perceived to be greater than it actually was - teachers often omitted HIV/AIDS lessons laid out in the curriculum, or taught without any direct reference to sex or human relations.

"The teachers seem to fear teaching on the subject of HIV/AIDS," a female student in the urban town of Kisumu was quoted as saying.

In order to counteract the culture of embarrassment, the study advised that the syllabus should draw upon local statistics of prevalence and local case studies. Young people should also initially be taught about HIV/AIDS in single sex groups, with women teachers talking to girls, men to boys.

The strong influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Nyanza and its position against condom use also played a key role in selective teaching. Consequently, over half of the parents and teachers interviewed disagreed strongly about the use of condoms.

"Being a Catholic-sponsored school, the use of condoms is definitely totally disapproved and abstinence is taught to girls...there is a motto of 'close your thighs and open your books'," a head teacher in Homa Bay said in the report.

But there was a strong demand for young people to be taught about the epidemic. About 68 percent of Kenyan parents reported knowing their child was being taught about HIV/AIDS in school, the report said. The school was viewed by the community as a trusted and important place for young people to learn about the disease.

Teachers viewed responsibility for teaching youth about HIV/AIDS as being diffused throughout the community, including parents and religious leaders. Although "diffused responsibility" was a positive step, it ran the risk of sending out confusing messages, the study warned.

"Collaboration and consistency must be fostered between schools, religious leaders and communities to overcome contradictory messages," it suggested.

Inadequate training for teachers was another barrier, as less than half the teachers interviewed said they did not have enough knowledge to teach about HIV/AIDS.

As well as looking at attitudes to HIV/AIDS education and responsibilities for curriculum delivery, the study investigated the effects of the wider crisis in education in the developing world.

The fact that less than 50 percent of children progress beyond primary school, and that many never attended school at all, was a cause for concern. The report recommended that HIV/AIDS education be extended not only to primary school but also beyond the classroom.

To access the report click here PDF Format

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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