Armenia: Tackling HIV/AIDS stigma in the classroom
A teenager is infected with HIV during a contaminated blood transfusion and is ostracized by friends, classmates and teachers. What would you do if that teenager was your friend? Would you offer your moral support? And what if that teenager wasn't your friend but in actual fact, were you? How would you expect to be treated?
This is just one of many scenarios presented to children attending Life Skills classes that are now taught in most schools as part of the national curriculum in the Republic of Armenia. The classes are part of a UNICEF-developed framework to develop a rights-based, interactive and participatory educational system.
Characterized as "inclusive, healthy and protective for all children,” lessons in developing skills that are relevant to the "real world" also allow schoolchildren the opportunity to formulate and express their own opinions on issues that might otherwise be ignored or inadequately covered by other, more mainstream classes.
"In this class we are allowed the freedom to think," says fourteen year old Samuel.
In School No. 120 in the Erebuni District of the Armenian capital, for example, as skills-based education has been shown to be more effective in promoting healthier lifestyles, the classes offer children the only opportunity they have to learn about the risk of infection from HIV / AIDS.
Interactive teaching methods also improve individual assertiveness and communication skills that can be utilized in later life.
Indeed, an independent report commissioned by UNICEF in 2001 assessed the project positively, supporting UNICEF's opinion that "possessing life skills is critical to young people's ability to positively adapt to and deal with the demands and challenges of life."
And such an approach in a country which still faces a long and difficult transformation away from a totalitarian past is of vital importance.
"In this class we are allowed the freedom to think," says fourteen year old Samuel. "Because we're not given marks, we don’t have to worry that by expressing our own ideas and opinions we’ll be later told that we're wrong."
"It's very offensive if someone ignores your opinion," adds Anoush, another fourteen year-old in the same class. "Nobody has the right to ignore my opinion."
As a result, Life Skills classes will be extended to every school in the Republic during 2005.
Yet, despite the benefits, not everyone was happy when Life Skills classes were first introduced in Armenia. Six years ago at School No. 120, for example, many parents were instead shocked to discover what their children were discussing.
In fact, teacher Karine Harutiunian says that there was even resistance to teaching Life Skills from other teachers, including the School's Director. Despite her training, by touching upon sensitive subjects such as trafficking, alcohol and drug abuse as well as the environment, she says she was instead accused of being a 'provocateur.'
"There was a lot of resistance at first but now there is none at all,” she says. “When parents first heard about these classes they made many complaints but now, some even say that they would like to participate."
Turning back to her class, Karine Harutiunian instructs the children to form separate groups of four to discuss the given scenario that she has already read out aloud from a teacher's manual produced and supplied by UNICEF.
After discussing the scenario, the children then pass a pomegranate to each other, taking turns to express their own individual opinion. There are no right and wrong answers, the children later explain. Instead, they are simply being given the opportunity to formulate ideas and to express themselves.
And it is this point that Harutiunian wants to stress the most.
Not only is the pomegranate considered a symbol of national significance in Armenia, she says, but it also represents democracy. "Beneath a tough outer shell, the seeds are all equal," she says, adding that children not only talk about their own rights but also those of others.
For more information:
Emil Sahakyan, Communication Officer, UNICEF Armenia:
Tel: (+ 374 10) 523 546,