|© UNICEF Ghana/2012/Logan|
|Munika, 12, is a member of the Tiyumba Junior Secondary School's HIV Alert Club in Tamale, Ghana. Standing with her are the school's principal, Mansoorah Moomen, and Munika's father, Seidu Abdullah, both supporters of the HIV Alert programme, which is being rolled out in every school in Ghana.|
From 22 to 27 July, experts are gathering in Washington, D.C., for the International AIDS Society’s biennial conference on rolling back the HIV and AIDS epidemic. UNICEF has hosted a leadership forum stressing the need for innovation in eliminating new HIV infections in children. This story is part of a series illustrating UNICEF's efforts on behalf of children and women affected by HIV.
TAMALE, Ghana, 27 July 2012 – The classroom is crowded – an hour before school is meant to start for the day.
Students sit in each other’s laps and squeeze three to a chair. Those at the back lean against the wall or stand on chairs.
Manal Abdullah, 14, calls for quiet and then asks the class, “What is an STI?”
She looks up from a laminated stack of cards and points to a girl, who stands to deliver the answer.
“It’s a sexually transmitted infection,” the girl responded.
So begins the Wednesday morning meeting of the HIV Alert Club at Tiyumba Junior Secondary School in Tamale, a student organization that is teaching children to protect themselves from HIV.
A frank discussion
Manal and her three fellow peer educators deliver a frank presentation about sexual health.
“Can you get herpes from kissing?” asks peer educator Prosper Batariwah, 14. “What is safe sex?”
Students are eager to stand up and answer questions – in most cases, correctly. There is not a hint of embarrassment as they talk about condoms, vaginal infections, and the symptoms of different STIs.
Tiyumba Junior Secondary School is a leader in HIV Alert, which is being rolled out in every school in Ghana. UNICEF partnered with the Ministry of Education to implement the program in primary and junior high schools throughout the country.
HIV prevalence among Ghanaian adults was 1.5 per cent in 2010, and comprehensive knowledge about HIV remains low among those aged 15 to 24, between 28 and 34 per cent.
The HIV Alert programme aims to prevent infection by educating students, parents and teachers and by encouraging open and informed dialogue about AIDs, sex and prevention.
Education reduces stigma
Members of the HIV Alert Club play the ‘risk game’, during which players identify what activities could put a person in danger of contracting HIV. Club members also discuss how to deal with sex, whether to practice abstinence or negotiate with their partner about using a condom.
This involves role-playing assertiveness. The adolescents brainstorm how to be confident in situations where they may feel powerless or pressured – not only in situations involving sex, but also in school and at home.
Mosquitoes once terrified 13-year-old peer educator Nagat Anyagri. She believed that an insect that had bitten an HIV-positive person could then infect her. She brought her concerns to a science teacher, who told her infection from a mosquito was impossible; the insect does not inject any blood into a person it bites.
Nagat was relieved, but she also realised something important: Knowledge is power against HIV, and prevents stigma. She now knows the virus cannot be spread by hugging, kissing or shaking hands with someone who is HIV-positive. It is safe to share utensils and a bathroom and to play sport together.
Ms. Ziblim, the health teacher, runs the HIV Alert program at Tiyumba.
“HIV education is entrenched here,” Ms. Ziblim said. Each teacher at Tiyumba JSS has to integrate HIV education into their subject areas. At least three lessons every term have to deal with the disease – whether that’s in a science, social studies or English class.
Teachers are also supported by the peer educators.
“When the pupils talk to their peers, they feel freer to speak and more comfortable than when they are with adults,” Ms. Ziblim said.
Educating parents and communities
Seidu Abdullah recalls the first time a peer educator spoke about HIV to the 300-strong crowd of mothers and fathers at a Tiyumba parent-teacher association meeting.
“We have a cross section of parents. More than half of them are illiterate. It’s not easy to talk about sex in many homes here,” Mr. Abdullah.
“I thought her speech was very good. It made me realize that if this young girl knew so much about the disease, it could only be of benefit to the whole society. The awareness is so much higher now than it was 5 to 10 years ago.”
Mr. Abdullah said open discussion at PTA meetings encouraged parents to talk about HIV and safe sex at home with their children. His daughter Munika, 12, is a member of the school’s HIV Alert Club. “This sort of knowledge is very important in the north of Ghana, where many young children travel alone to Accra to live and work... They are subject to all sorts of hazards in their work and where they stay.”
Tiyumba principal Mansoorah Moomen knows that HIV education in schools will help spread knowledge to the rest of society. “It’s important to alert little ones at school to become news bearers in their families and the community,” Ms. Moomen said.