There is room for optimism in the overall progress of the global education sector's response to HIV, says a new in-depth study of 39 countries around the world. However, a worrying degree of stagnation in some areas still exists and much more needs to be done if the sector is to fulfil its critical role in helping to intensify HIV prevention.
The report, 2011-2012 Education Sector HIV and AIDS Global Progress Survey: Progression, Regression or Stagnation? was commissioned by the UNAIDS Inter-Agency Task Team (IATT) on Education and compares results from a similar comparative study in 2004. It finds that now almost all countries have an education sector HIV policy, that an increasing number of teachers are trained to share knowledge about the epidemic and that it occupies more space in the curriculum, taught through life-skills education.
But policy development in theory does not necessarily translate into implementation in practice. The extent to which HIV is addressed is still marginal. Despite noted improvements, many more teachers need to be trained and knowledge about the virus remains low.
Recent research in a range of countries shows that less than half of young people have comprehensive and correct knowledge about HIV. This matters a great deal, the report contends, as education is the foundation for the success of all HIV programming. High quality information and the space to explore key issues such as sex and relationships are seen as fundamentally necessary for comprehensive AIDS education.
Young people can use their knowledge to make informed choices about how to protect themselves and others from HIV. In addition, the very fact of being educated in itself reduces vulnerability to the virus, especially for girls, as it promotes self-esteem, assertiveness and economic independence.
According to UNESCO Global Coordinator for AIDS Soo-Hyang Choi, "Education is a protective factor for HIV infection and it contributes to a global citizenry that can address stigma and discrimination. Education, therefore, plays a central role in the AIDS response."
Room for improvement
The IATT report gives a salient example of what is happening on the ground and where improvements can be made in a long term study in Southern and Eastern Africa. The research found that on average two thirds of grade six students (between 13 and 14 years of age) across 11 countries did not have even minimal understanding of HIV required to preserve and promote their health. Knowledge levels ranged from 19% in Lesotho to 70% in Tanzania.
However, 99% of their teachers did in fact have this knowledge but did not impart it to their students. The study concluded that teachers were uncomfortable sharing such information or felt that it went beyond their remit. They were also given limited training in the topic - by government experts, UN agencies or civil society organizations - both before they started teaching and once they were actually on the job.
Scott Pulizzi, Coordinator of UNAIDS IATT on Education, maintains that this must change, "Every learner needs a qualified teacher who is mandated and supported by the school administration and the community to teach skills-based sexuality education, including HIV. Without systemic change in the education sector, teachers will not be able help their learners acquire the knowledge and develop the skills to reduce their vulnerability to the virus."
Progression, Regression or Stagnation? recommends a detailed action plan to ensure that learners get a potentially life-saving HIV education. Steps include:
- Establishing high-level political will for a comprehensive AIDS response in education;
- Developing a country-appropriate management system to coordinate and implement existing policy and plans;
- Supporting sector-wide teacher training on HIV;
- Ensuring that curricula and accurate teaching materials are age-appropriate, gender-sensitive, life skills-based and available in all schools for all learners; and
- Engaging parents and the community in implementation.
The report emphasizes that an AIDS-free generation is within reach. And it concludes by stressing that, "The objectives of Getting to Zero: zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths are possible and it starts with education."
The IATT is convened by UNESCO and includes other UNAIDS Cosponsors, bilateral agencies and civil society organisations