|© UNICEF India|
|Peer education is essential for combating HIV/AIDS|
MUMBAI, India, 12 July 2004 – On an overcast monsoon morning, students, performers, municipal officers and humanitarian aid workers are focusing their attention on the subject of HIV/AIDS.
Students in the ninth grade at Pal Rajendra High School at Kandivalli in Mumbai, the capital city of the western Indian state of Maharashtra, are being told about the reproductive system. Just a few kilometres away in Malad, the students at the Infant Jesus School are busy rehearsing a street play on HIV/AIDS.
At the Bombay Municipal Corporation office in Dadar, an agenda is being prepared for a meeting of School Medical Officers later in the afternoon. Meanwhile, UNICEF staff in Andheri are busy collating material for a workshop for resource persons engaged with the AIDS Prevention Education Programme (APEP) in schools in Maharashtra.
Since a large majority of HIV infections occur via sexual contact, the promotion of safe sexual behaviour lies at the heart of the HIV/AIDS prevention programme in India. More than half of the newly infected people are between 15 and 24 years of age; targeting young people is seen as the best way to reverse the rising trend in HIV/AIDS infections in India.
Life skills training may save lives
At a health centre in a slum in Mumbai, Saira, 15, is removing her shawl as she joins the weekly ‘Kishori’ (adolescent life skills training) session. “I would request from a future husband that he get tested for HIV/AIDS,” she says in class. Saira has attended the adolescent life skills training for the last two years and in the process has managed to overcome her hesitation and shyness to discuss issues related to sex and sexuality.
“We learn how to be more confident, and how to take decisions,” she adds. “I could never discuss these things with my parents,” says Saira, “but when the Kishori outreach worker came to my house and talked to them, they allowed me to attend it once a week. They are happy that I learn about health, nutrition and hygiene.”
The social workers trained for the HIV/AIDS prevention programme use material prepared by the UNICEF Mumbai office, along with health experts, government representatives, teachers, parents and adolescents themselves, to explain how the infection can be prevented.
Late in the afternoon, teachers from the Anjuman-E-Islam Girls School at Bandra in Mumbai are visiting homes in the neighbourhood to convince mothers about the need to create awareness of AIDS-related issues among their adolescent daughters. Not too far away, members of the Arch-Diocese Education Board are deliberating on how to revamp their programme in order to support knowledge-building about HIV/AIDS among young people.
Myriad scenes…myriad efforts, each a fragment of APEP, which has successfully taken HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention programmes to over 547,399 students in 918 of the 1136 secondary schools in Mumbai. The programme has also created a rich pool of 32,000 peer educators in Maharashtra; some 23 per cent of India’s estimated 4.58 million HIV-positive people live in Maharashtra.
AIDS educators reach out to child workers at night school
As of July 2003, APEP has touched 57 of the 150 night schools in Mumbai. The teachers and peer educators who participate in the programme have been trained as part of the initiative to reach the larger community, especially child workers who attend night schools. These children often work during the day in high-risk environments such as roadside restaurants, beauty parlours and industrial units.
At dusk, despite a heavy down pour, Santosh, a young community peer educator, is at one of these night schools talking to students on how they can protect themselves from HIV/AIDS.
“What is the difference between infatuation and love?” asks a teacher. Giggling breaks out among thirty teenage boys attending the night school, most of whom spend their days working as waiters, rickshaw wallahs and porters.
“Now what do I do if I fall in love with a girl, and she does not love me?” asks 16-year-old Santosh, who, like so many adolescents, left his village to find work in Mumbai. His question is a lead-in for explanations about HIV and high-risk behaviours.
Some of the students have heard about HIV/AIDS, but hardly anyone knows how the disease is transmitted, and therefore their attention is focused on a large flipchart that helps the teacher explain about the bodily changes that occur in adolescence.
“To protect yourself and others against HIV/AIDS, you have to get body and mind working together,” says the teacher.