Basic education and gender equality
In 2002, half of all adults living with HIV/AIDS worldwide were female.
Yet trends also show that girls and young women are getting infected faster and at a younger age than males. In sub-Saharan Africa, the region hardest-hit by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, women between the ages of 15 to 24 are twice as likely to become infected with HIV as men in the same age group. Among young adults aged 19 to 24, the ratio is five or six to one in worst-affected countries.
The risks and consequences of contracting HIV can differ dramatically for girls and boys. As the epidemic grips developing countries, the gender differences play out in startling numbers and stories, and demand a gender-sensitive response. At a minimum, the right to quality basic education as well as skills-based HIV/AIDS prevention education must be extended equally to boys and girls.
Education is one of our most important weapons against the spread of HIV/AIDS. The evidence for this is growing: in countries with severe epidemics, young people with higher levels of education are more likely to use condoms and less likely to engage in casual sex than less-education peers.
There are three key lines of defence against HIV/AIDS.
- Get girls into school and ensure a safe and effective learning environment to keep them there.
- Provide education and skills on HIV/AIDS prevention as part of the quality education that all children and young people deserve.
- Ensure special measures for those not in schools, including working children, street children and those who are exploited or made vulnerable by poverty and poor living conditions.
What can be done to protect girls and young women from HIV/AIDS and its effects?
- HIV/AIDS is stubbornly resistant to quick and narrow responses. Stemming its spread and mitigating its impact requires that we correct the fundamental inadequacies that fuel its transmission. This includes gender inequities in basic education. Keeping girls in school so that they can complete their education is important. This requires measures such as providing safe water and sanitation in all schools. A lack of privacy and adequate sanitation facilities may be a factor in girls dropping out, particularly as they enter puberty.
- School-based programmes have been shown to reduce HIV/AIDS risks, particularly when they go beyond providing information and help young people develop knowledge, attitudes and life skills needed to protect themselves. HIV/AIDS education should include discussions of gender roles, rights and responsibilities to help boys and girls understand and address stereotypes, gender bias, power relations and discrimination. Skills-based HIV/AIDS education uses participatory approaches to involve both children and young people in active learning experiences that can include HIV/AIDS as well as other health and personal development issues.
- Schools can also provide livelihood skills education, to provide income-earning opportunities for young girls and women, thus reducing their economic dependence.
- Schools need to actively fight against harassment, violence and sexual abuse. Special security measures and behaviour protocols must be in place to protect the rights of children and young people in education systems.
- Schools must work to reduce the discrimination that girls and young women face at school, by enforcing appropriate policies and practices.
Other measures to protect girls and young women from HIV/AIDS and its effects include the following:
- Addressing the denial, discrimination and complacency that act as barriers to taking action against HIV/AIDS.
- Fostering equal partnerships and participation between boys and girls, young men and women.
- Promoting equity among boys and girls, young men and young women in care-giving for relatives with HIV/AIDS.
- Making sure that HIV/AIDS-related messages do not reinforce gender stereotypes or other biases related to HIV status, race, religion or culture.
- Ensuring stronger home-school-community partnerships to better coordinate education with complementary strategies, such as supportive policies and legal frameworks, access to condoms and the prevention and treatment of sexually-transmitted infections.
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