Taking the fight against HIV and AIDS into Islamic schools in East Java, Indonesia
By Steve Nettleton
PROBOLINGGO, Indonesia, 28 August 2006 - A call to prayer, instead of a school bell, signals the end of the morning session of classes at Zainul Hasan Islamic school in East Java.
Young boys put down their books, put on their white prayer caps and file into the mosque, while girls in blue headscarves take a break in the courtyard, chatting under the shadow of a minaret.
It appears a typical scene for one of Indonesia's 5,000 Islamic boarding schools, known as 'pesantren', a large concentration of which are found in East Java.
This year, however, a subject seeming anything but typical has appeared in the classroom at Zainul Hasan, a subject that would have once been considered taboo: HIV and AIDS.
Alongside discussions of the Koran, students are starting to talk openly about sex, drug use and HIV. It is part of the Islamic Leadership Initiative, a regional effort to teach students in Islamic schools how to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS.
A recent surge in HIV and AIDS cases has vaulted East Java from the sixth to the third most affected province in Indonesia, in only one year. This escalation has alarmed community and religious leaders, who are starting to see HIV and AIDS education as a lifesaving course of study.
"One cause of HIV infection is carefree sex and prostitution, which are spreading widely and uncontrolled," said KH Mohammad Hasan Mutawakkil Alallah, the 'kyai', or religious leader, of Zainul Hasan. "By knowing the bad effects of those negative attitudes, our students, besides identifying the religious threat, can also identify the deadly impact on health."
Empowering students and teachers
UNICEF began its approach at the national level, working with Indonesia's Council of Ulama, a group of senior Muslim scholars that deliberates on the nation's Islamic law.
"We explained the importance of preventing HIV and AIDS among young people," said the head of UNICEF's Fighting AIDS Unit in Indonesia, Rachel Odede. "Looking at the Islamic values of life, we were able to come up with a strategy to ensure that [preventing] HIV and AIDS could be taken into schools."
That strategy involves giving 60 teachers from 20 Islamic schools in East Java special training about HIV and AIDS. In addition, 60 students from each school are trained to serve as 'peer educators' who share their knowledge through classroom discussions and one-on-one talks with friends.
One of them, 16-year-old Hikmatul Kamiliah, a junior at Zainul Hasan, says her information is in great demand.
"After I got home from the training, my parents also asked me about HIV and AIDS," she said. "So, I explained it to them. In the school dormitory, I talk about this disease to my friends in our room."
By bringing HIV and AIDS education into Islamic schools, communities in East Java are using a new asset to fight a growing menace that shows no mercy for young people, regardless of their religion or faith.