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On June 5th 1981 the United States Centres for Disease Control published a report about a new disease that was hitting gay men. That report ushered in the AIDS era. Twenty one
years have passed since then, years in which the disease has grown to nightmarish proportions, with almost every passing year seeing the need to revise upwards already dire estimates and projections. In 1991, the World Health Organisation expectation was that by the year 2000 HIV infections
worldwide would amount to some 20 million. The projection was almost three times short of the mark. Since the epidemic began, more than 60 million have been infected with the virus, at least 20 million have died of the disease, and a conservative estimate is that presently some 40 million people
are living with HIV/AIDS.

Education’s Significant Contribution to the Struggle with HIV/AIDS

Currently there is no known cure for HIV or AIDS. Work on the development of a vaccine is proceeding, but
none is yet available and the likelihood seems to be that ten years or more will pass before a universally available, affordable and easily applied vaccine comes on to the market. Drugs that hold HIV in abeyance are available, but even with the substantial price reductions that have been effected
in the past year, their cost remains very high, their administration requires a well-developed health infrastructure of the kind that several countries do not have, and there are growing concerns about the development of HIV strains that are resistant to the drugs currently in use. Excessive
reliance on controlling the epidemic through the provision of antiretroviral therapy for infected individuals also faces massive annual cost increases, since new numbers will be added each year to the ranks of those whose lives are being prolonged by a therapy which must be maintained throughout
life.

In this set of circumstances, preventing the further transmission of HIV must be the principal strategy. In its turn, prevention depends very heavily on education. A little reflection will show how every prevention effort, the majority of coping
strategies, much of the activity directed towards the mitigation of impacts, and virtually every programme designed to outwit and get ahead of HIV/AIDS, depends in one way or another on education. It is no exaggeration to say that in the current state of scientific knowledge and development, the
only protection available to society lies with the “social vaccine of education”.

In addition to its saliency as a constitutive element of every information, education, and communication (IEC) approach, formal and non-formal education “offer a window of hope
unlike any others for escaping the grip of HIV/AIDS” (World Bank, 2002, p. 2). There are several reasons for saying so:

  • Education, and above all school education, has been shown to be related to the reduction of HIV prevalence rates among young people. Uganda and Zambia have both experienced dramatic declines in the infection rates of the sub-group of 15–19 year-old girls with
    secondary school education, and in Zambia it has been found that a girl who has dropped out of school is three times more likely to be HIV infected than an age-mate who remained in school (Fylkesnes et al., 2001). The precise mechanisms by which education contributes to this change
    are not yet clearly understood, but they may lie in a combination of enhanced ability to use information, the package of habits and dispositions that learners accumulate throughout their schooldays, the way school education opens one up to future prospects, and the increased opportunities it
    provides for economic independence (Coombe & Kelly, 2001).
  • Formal school education reaches the majority of young people in a country. Further, it reaches them at an early age when they are in their most formative years. Therefore it has the potential to transmit significantly important HIV prevention and other
    AIDS-related messages to young people when they are in their most receptive developmental stage.
  • size=”2″>School education is among the most powerful tools for transforming the poverty and gender inequality environment in which HIV/AIDS flourishes. It is universally acknowledged that growth out of poverty and growth in education are almost synonymous. Likewise,
    the education of both boys and girls contributes significantly to the evolution within a society of an environment where there is less acceptance of gender inequality and female disempowerment.
  • Girls who remain longer in school tend to commence sexual activity at a later age, are more likely to require male partners to use condoms, and marry at a later age (World Bank, 2002). Each of these factors contributes to the reduction of HIV transmission.

Strengthening Education’s Capacity in the Struggle with HIV/AIDS

But education, especially school education, can play an even more crucial role in the combat with HIV/AIDS. Already doing well, it can do even
better. Enhancing the contribution that education can make to reducing the likelihood of HIV transmission and managing the impacts of the disease requires attention to the following issues:

Expand Access and Improve the Quality of Provision

size=”2″>Education in the sense of schooling can do nothing to reduce the transmission and impact of HIV/AIDS for children who—for whatever reason—cannot enrol in school. Neither can it promote the knowledge, understanding and attitudes that are fundamental to the reduction of
HIV transmission if the quality is so poor that real and meaningful learning achievement does not occur.

Hence the AIDS epidemic underscores the crucial importance of attaining the International Millennium Development Goals that relate to Education-For-All (EFA).
These are

  • to ensure that by 2015 every child can access and complete free and compulsory basic education of good quality, and
  • the elimination by 2005 of gender disparities in primary and secondary education.
  • “Full speed ahead on EFA goals is vital. … A general basic education—and not merely instruction on prevention—is among the strongest weapons against the HIV/AIDS epidemic. … An urgent, strategic, and education-centred response … is of the utmost importance” (World
    Bank, 2002, p. 6).

    It is also important to take steps that will enable children, especially girls, continue in school to the secondary level. What is gained at this level appears to make a crucial difference to the protection of oneself and one’s potential
    partner against HIV infection. Expanded access to secondary education also provides a surer route out of poverty, at both individual and national levels, and through this mechanism provides a more comprehensive defence against HIV transmission.

    Mainstream
    HIV/AIDS into Every Aspect of Education

    The potential of HIV/AIDS to devastate the lives of individuals, the economies of countries, and education systems themselves, is too great for the disease and its consequences to be merely bolted on as some
    additional consideration within the programmes of already over-worked education ministries, departments and institutions. This is the most devastating disease that humanity has ever experienced. Responding to it is not an optional extra, but must be an integral and accountable part of concerns and
    programmes at all levels, from the office of the Minister down to the humblest village school.

    Accentuating the importance of this mainstreaming is the fact that HIV/AIDS places the entire education system and all its institution under profound threat. An
    education system that does not mainstream HIV/AIDS into every facet of its operations runs the risk of being overwhelmed by the epidemic and the variety of its impacts. It can become so weakened by the epidemic (through the loss of educators, impairment of quality, numerous negative effects on
    learners, educators and managers, and constraints on resources) that its ability to provide both general education and HIV/AIDS education could be greatly reduced. In the absence of mainstreaming, the one system that has the potential to provide crucial HIV protection to society could find that it
    was unable to do so because it was itself besieged by a network of interrelated, debilitating, and complex AIDS-related problems.

    A practical aspect of this mainstreaming is to ensure that education policies, procedures and regulations are reformulated to take
    account of HIV/AIDS. It will also be necessary to incorporate HIV/AIDS issues into every aspect of an education ministry’s strategic planning process. In severely affected countries, mainstreaming HIV/AIDS will also necessitate dedicated structural arrangements, involving full-time staff
    possessing considerable authority and backed up with adequate human, financial and material resources, who will maintain the momentum for progress in everything that relates to the interaction between the disease and the education sector.

    Establish
    Programmes and Activities that Run along a Continuum from Prevention to Care

    At the sectoral level, provision must be made for programmes that respond to the prevention needs of employees. If the system is to function, all categories of education staff must
    know about the disease and how to protect themselves against it. This calls for programmes that address HIV/AIDS in the workplace. At the institutional level, there is need for specific prevention education programmes that teach about HIV/AIDS and such related areas as reproductive health (see
    below).

    Realisation is growing that responding to the care and treatment needs of those infected with HIV/AIDS is an essential complement to prevention efforts. There is also growing recognition of the need for attention to the management and mitigation of
    impacts. Aspects that are of particular relevance to the education sector include responding to the needs of the exponentially increasing number of orphans, catering for learners, educators and education employees who are HIV infected or whose condition has progressed to AIDS, reaching out to and
    providing support for infected persons in communities, especially those who are relatives of school personnel, and establishing schools as multipurpose welfare and development centres within affected communities.

    Engage Creatively with Others

    In the past the cardinal error was made of treating HIV/AIDS as being primarily a health problem. To treat it as being primarily a problem for education would be to repeat and compound the error. HIV/AIDS is wider than any sector, but touches the entire range of
    development and human welfare interests. Responding to it likewise demands the widespread participation and interaction of players from various areas of the public sector, as well as the involvement of the numerous organs of civil society. The walls of territoriality that government
    ministries/departments build for themselves and that the government sector sometimes uses to effect the marginalisation of NGOs, faith-based communities, community-based organisations, business coalitions, and other partners, must be broken down. It is paramount that in the struggle with HIV/AIDS
    the education sector manifest the fullest cooperation, sharing of resources and facilities, and collaboration in programme design, implementation and evaluation, with these and other potential partners. The problem of AIDS is too large for the sector or any of its partners to deal with on their
    own. But working together they can succeed in bringing it to heel.

    African Jesuit AIDS Network
    World AIDS Day in Kisangani, Democratic Republic of the Congo

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