AFRICA: Throwing the book at AIDS
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
NAIROBI, 25 January (PLUSNEWS) - What AIDS prevention method lasts a lifetime and is particularly effective among young women? Education, delegates attending the World Social Forum [http://wsf2007.org/] in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, heard this week.
In parts of sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, young women are up to six times more likely to be infected with HIV than their male counterparts. That has a lot to do with the imbalance of power between the sexes, according to Charles Abani, regional operations manager for Africa with the anti-poverty NGO, ActionAid.
Women and girls are generally more vulnerable because lower levels of education and financial autonomy make them more dependent on men.
"There is great potential in HIV control through education; mainly girls' education," he said. "Education delays sexual debut, meaning that girls are able to make more informed choices."
According a 2006 ActionAid report, 'Girl Power', HIV prevalence declines among people with higher education levels. In Tanzania, girls with upper secondary education were seven times less likely to be HIV infected; in Uganda, those with primary education were three times less likely to be infected, and in South Africa, which has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in Africa, tertiary education reduced the risk of infection sevenfold.
However, Abani said the connection between HIV and education was not always made, and there were serious challenges still confronting access to schooling for girls.
Child labour was one hindrance, South African teacher Grace Maputu told delegates. "Sometimes the girls come to school very tired ... they can barely concentrate in the class after performing numerous chores," she said.
Early marriage - common in many African cultures - also halts girls' education, forcing them into often-polygamous unions with much older men.
The impact of AIDS is a double blow. In affected households, girls often drop out of school to care for sick family members; others are compelled to engage in risky transactional sex to survive, perpetuating the cycle of ignorance and HIV.
Unsurprisingly, access to education is much more difficult in remote, pastoralist areas such as northern Kenya, where girls travel long distances with their families in search of pasture for their animals.
"There is a need to have more boarding institutions for girls [in these areas], so that they can continue their education even when their families move in search of water and pasture," said Martin Simotwa, a teacher from the region.
Where girls do have access to schools, lack of teacher training in AIDS education remains an impediment. "This is due to the relationship between HIV and sexuality, and issues touching on morality ... it makes this a difficult subject," said Sabine Detzel, an education specialist with the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.
"If we fail to provide education, we fail to give people the means to protect themselves," Detzel said. "We believe that the school is the best place to fight HIV."
See ActionAid report, 'Girl Power'