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HIV/AIDS

Working with the military to beat AIDS

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Interview with Lisa Bohmer, UNICEF’s HIV/AIDS chief in Ethiopia

Lisa Bohmer has her work cut out for her. An estimated 2.2 million of Ethiopia’s 65 million people are believed to be HIV-positive. The most affected are young people between 15 and 24 years of age.

It would be difficult in any circumstances to combat a raging HIV/AIDS epidemic in a poor country where both maternal and child health and literacy rates are among the lowest in the world. But in Ethiopia, efforts have been complicated by deadly armed conflicts and devastating droughts. Ethiopia has endured three wars and three major food security emergencies in the past 40 years. “It’s a huge, complex country with immense challenges,” Bohmer says.

After a peace treaty was signed with Eritrea in December 2000, 55,000 troops were demobilized without any HIV testing or counselling and only two hours of HIV education. Many soldiers who contracted HIV while serving in the military most likely returned to their homes, and to their wives or partners.  

Drought is also forcing tens of thousands to flee villages in the southeast in search of food. An estimated 14.3 million people are expected to be seriously affected by drought conditions in 2003, including about 2.3 million children under five.

The drought is likely to fuel HIV/AIDS unless prevention efforts are coupled with other life-saving interventions ranging from direct food assistance, to improving water and basic health services. UNICEF Ethiopia is partnering with the Government and a range of NGOs to ensure that HIV/AIDS education is part of the emergency response.

UNICEF has also teamed up with the Ethiopian military to fight the epidemic. Although the military – one of sub-Saharan Africa’s largest and best equipped – has most likely played a role in spreading HIV, UNICEF believes it can also be a big part of the solution.

Along with Swedish Save the Children, UNICEF is working to train the military on child rights, sexual exploitation and HIV/AIDS awareness. It is setting up 12 training centres and training the trainers to sensitize their leaders to children’s issues. Through its Gender and Child Protection Programme, UNICEF is also training humanitarian workers on sexual exploitation issues within a child rights context.

UNICEF is building HIV/AIDS education into its emergency procedures. “Further advocacy is necessary so that we include HIV/AIDS and child protection into our response to emergencies that can range from armed conflict to natural disasters,” Bohmer said.