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Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: HIV/AIDS education for high-risk youth

© UNICEF video
In Sri Lanka the drop-out rate after primary education is high. Courses like the one offered by the Community Strength Foundation seek to reach young people who missed out on sex education – including HIV/AIDS prevention – in school.

By Rob McBride

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, 3 November 2005 - The teenagers, mostly boys, sat in a circle on the floor, taking turns writing the names of parts of the body on the anatomical drawing of the female figure before them. As each new word was added, there were giggles from some and teasing from others. This type of session is called ‘body mapping’ and is a useful technique in HIV/AIDS awareness workshops.

The immaturity with which these students responded to their first such lesson was sure proof that very few of them had ever had any kind of sex education – which includes education on awareness and prevention of HIV/AIDS.

“Sex education is in the [standard school] curriculum,” said UNICEF Programme Officer Dr. Harischandra Yakandawala. “But the drop-out rate after primary education is high. So some of these children missed their education from the school, and specifically this type of education.” To remedy the situation, UNICEF in Sri Lanka places great emphasis on education programmes which seek to reach adolescents from low income areas.

This particular session was being held in the offices of a local NGO, the Community Strength Foundation, located in Peliyagoda – one of the poorest neighbourhoods of the capital, Colombo. Young people in this area may be at higher risk from the disease.

© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2005/ McBride
UNICEF Programme Officer Dr. Harischandra Yakandawala is optimistic about prospects for controlling the spread of HIV/AIDS in Sri Lanka.

Youth not well informed

“I know it is a bad thing to get,” said 12-year old Prabhat, one of the students. But beyond that, he was unable to reveal anything more about HIV/AIDS when asked.

This was still more than Pradip, 20, knew. Pradip was one of the oldest in the group and also one of the least informed. “I don’t know anything about it,” he admitted. “That is why I have come here.”

Although both sexes are encouraged equally to take part, so far very few girls have attended. The school drop-out rate is lower for girls than boys, so it’s possible that they are already better informed. Furthermore, when girls do drop out of school, they are often kept at home.

But Deepika, 16, was here to learn for herself about the disease. “I think it’s very important for girls to know about it,” she said. “That way, we can protect ourselves.”

Stopping the spread

Deepika’s fears are well-founded. It is estimated that 90 per cent of all HIV infections in Sri Lanka occur through unprotected heterosexual contact. As well as HIV/AIDS awareness this programme stresses the importance of preventive measures such as condom use.

HIV prevalence in Sri Lanka remains very low compared to the rest of South Asia – not to speak of sub-Saharan Africa. The infection rate for people aged 15-49 is currently estimated at less than 0.1 per cent. But the Sri Lankan Ministry of Health is certainly not complacent about the problem and its potential for future spread. The Ministry has instituted a National STD/AIDS Control Programme.

“We are now in a good position,” said Dr. Harischandra. “The prevalence is very low and if we can maintain that level, I think we can stop the spread of HIV/AIDS in our country.” Courses like the one organised by the Community Strength Foundation are certainly helping in that effort.




October 2005:
UNICEF Correspondent Rob Mc Bride interviews UNICEF Programme Officer Harischandra Yakandawala about how high-risk youth in Sri Lanka are learning about HIV/AIDS.

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