Asia and the Pacific Congress on HIV/AIDS discuss social issues
By Irfan Kortschak
BALI, 14 August, 2009 — At the recent Ninth International Congress on HIV and AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP) held in Indonesia, UNICEF has stressed the need to integrate HIV prevention into the mainstream curriculum through development of policy and programmes. The theme of the Congress ‘Empowering People, Strengthening Networks’ was chosen in recognition of the vital importance of linking strong networks to mobilize responses based on the latest best practices and scientific evidence.
It brought together more than 3,000 delegates from around the world to meet and share knowledge, skills, ideas, research findings related to HIV and AIDS in Bali on 9 – 13 August.
The President of the Republic of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhyono in his opening speech described the HIV as “one of the world’s most lethal and most successful killers,” adding that “HIV has raised the specter of a ‘lost generation’ a generation where the youth are doomed before reaching or completing their productive age.” The President’s warning about a lost generation underscores the fact that, in Asia, of an estimated 5 million people were living with HIV in 2007, a significant proportion are children. With growing feminization of AIDS in the region, children continue to be at risk of infection. The main transmission route among children is from mother-to-child, with a small percentage being infected by unsafe blood supply and unsafe injections.
In addition to those living with HIV, a considerably larger number of children are made vulnerable by the loss of one or more parents. Many are children of injecting drug users, sex workers and men who buy sex. As such, they often face discrimination and multiple vulnerabilities. However, on a more empowering note, he summarized the theme of the Congress in one simple sentence: “We can prevent an epidemic by way of effective and proactive international collaboration.”
The sector best placed to influence the behaviour patterns of young people is not the medical sector, but the education sector. As Ms Anupama Rao Singh, the UNICEF East Asia Regional Director, said: “The health sector alone can do little to influence the behaviours of the estimated 1 billion adolescents in the Asia Pacific Region, but schools are ideally placed to integrate HIV prevention within topics of healthy lifestyles, relationships, alcohol use, gender expectations, risk behaviours, sexuality and reproductive health.” It is for this reason that the United Nations and development partners have been supporting and encouraging countries to integrate HIV prevention into the mainstream curriculum through development of policy and programmes.
In addition to very young children, in many Asia Pacific countries, a disproportionately large number of young people, particularly those aged 15 to 24, are amongst those living with HIV. In a symposium on ‘Enhancing HIV Prevention for Adolescents through Effective Health and Sexuality Education,’ in the lead up to ICAAP, education delegates from more than ten countries met to discuss HIV strategies that call on the education sector to share the responsibility for educating young people about HIV prevention, sexuality, reproductive health and psychosocial health issues.
It was fitting that this particular symposium was opened by the Governor of Papua, Barnabas Suebu. Papua is the only province of Indonesia that has embarked on a systematic process to mainstream HIV and reproductive health education into the education sector to empower young people to take responsibility for their health and to provide them with the necessary skills to achieve this.
In Papua, the prevalence rate of HIV amongst the general population is almost ten times higher than the national average. Young people are particularly affected, the rate of infection amongst the 15 – 49 age group at above 2.4 percent., Papua has become the first province of Indonesia to embark on a systematic process to mainstream HIV and reproductive health education into the education sector. UNICEF has supported this programme in the implementation of life-skills based HIV-related education in junior high schools. HIV and Aids is integrated into curriculum and into teaching and learning materials of a variety of different subjects, including biology, religious studies and physical education.
It is not nearly enough to focus on medical interventions. Rather, it is necessary to change patterns of behaviour and empower young people. “HIV should not be seen as a stand alone issue, nor as a medical issue. It is a social issue that is best considered as part of young people's real world of puberty, changing relationships, alcohol and risk taking behaviours including sexuality and reproductive health,” said Ms Angela Kearney, Country Representative of UNICEF Indonesia.
The Indonesian Education ministry, as across Asia and the Pacific, are making efforts to develop policies, including increasing teachers’ capacity to cover this new area into their mainstream curricula. However, this will only be successfully implemented by building strong partnerships and networks involving all elements of the community and reaching across Asia and the Pacific and beyond to facilitate effective responses to the specific challenges of the HIV pandemic faced by countries in the region today.