|© UNICEF ESARO/2005/Lewnes|
|A boy at the Okalongo Primary School in northern Namibia draws a picture as part of the after-school Window of Hope programme, which helps 10 to 14-year-olds prepare for the challenges posed by HIV/AIDS.|
By Alexia Lewnes
OKALONGO, Namibia, 7 March 2006 – Eleven-year-old Fenni is one of 27 students at the Okalongo Primary School in northern Namibia participating in a new and unique after-school programme called Window of Hope. The programme helps 10 to 14-year-olds increase self-esteem and acquire knowledge and skills to protect themselves against HIV and develop compassion for those living with the disease.
One of the initiative’s major goals is to empower children to deal with HIV/AIDS in their personal lives, in school and in the wider community.
“I never used to know the difference between a good touch and a bad touch,” says Fenni. “I didn’t know how to say no to bad things, but now I do.”
The critical years
Window of Hope recognizes that early adolescence – when young people are just beginning to engage in risky behaviors, but before damaging patterns have become established – provides a critical window of opportunity to deliver prevention messages and prepare young people for the challenges posed by HIV/AIDS.
Reaching children in primary school also makes practical sense. About 94 per cent of primary school-age children in Namibia are enrolled in school, compared with only about half of all 14 to 18-year-olds.
Launched in 2004 by the Ministry of Education with UNICEF support, the Window of Hope programme can serve up to 30 children at a time and generally meets once a week in each participating school. All primary schools are required to offer Window of Hope as a voluntary after-school activity.
The programme curriculum runs over a period of four years, engaging and educating children with games, stories, songs, information sharing, partner and group work, role playing, artwork and visualization exercises. Practical skills and information for the prevention of HIV are integrated into regular school subjects such as science, health and social studies.
|© UNICEF ESARO/2005/Lewnes|
|An adolescent boy hugs his brother in Namibia's Omusati Region, where the orphaned siblings live with three other brothers and sisters. The number of child-headed households in the region is reportedly increasing, due to the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS.|
Providing vital information
The northern regions of Namibia – including Omusati Region, where Okalongo is located – have the highest HIV prevalence in the country. Many of the children at Okalongo Primary School have suffered the pain of losing parents and other relatives to AIDS after long illnesses.
Still, some children know very little about the disease. “I had heard about AIDS, but I never thought it was real,” says 12-year-old Nestor.
Others have knowledge that is unclear or incomplete. “I never knew how a person could get infected,” says 11-year-old Hilani. “I thought it was the same as other diseases. Now I know how it gets into the body and kills the immune system by destroying cells.”
In a culture where most parents never discuss sexuality with their children, Window of Hope is providing vital information to children who might otherwise be left in the dark.
In just a few months, Ndapewoshali Nefungo, the facilitator of Window of Hope at Okalongo Primary School, has seen the children in the programme transform. “In the beginning, some of the children were very shy and didn’t want to talk about themselves or about how they feel,” she says. “But gradually they became more confident and learned to be assertive and communicate much more clearly.”
Building self-confidence is an important part of the Window of Hope curriculum, helping students make healthy decisions for themselves and their future.
“Children don’t learn in school that their life has value and that they can say no,” says Coordinator Melissa Welp of the Regional AIDS Committee for Education in Omusati. “They don’t learn these things far enough in advance. So when they’re in a situation where they have to say no, they’re unprepared.
“Window of Hope teaches them how to respect one another and treat each other appropriately,” added Ms. Welp. “It develops a culture of respect between genders.”