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Seizing the opportunity to tackle HIV in Southern Sudan

Schoolgirls dancing on way home from classes in Juba, Southern Sudan
© UNICEF Sudan/2005
Two schoolgirls in Juba, Southern Sudan, dance in the street on their way home from a UNICEF-supported HIV/AIDS awareness programme held in their class

By Swangin Bismarck, UNICEF Communication Officer

[The names in this article have been changed, to protect the privacy of those featured]

1 December 2008, Juba, Southern Sudan — “Every time she falls sick I am afraid that the time for her to die has finally come” says Rose, mother to 11-year old Mary, in Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan. Both Rose and Mary are living with HIV/AIDS.

Mary, who is attending her first year at primary school, sometimes misses her lessons due to frequent illness. But today when I visited her house, it was noon, and she was just returning from school. She was beaming with a smile of innocence.

How does one tell children like Mary that they are among several thousands of children worldwide living with HIV/AIDS?  To them, their lives are unique with individual hopes and dreams for the future. Their daily existence is one of trying to be like all of the other children even though they can’t always keep up. 

Once referred to as ‘the last untouched pocket of Africa’ with regards to HIV/AIDS prevalence, Southern Sudan now faces a massive threat from the pandemic.

The two-decade-long civil war restricted labour migration, trade and travel, and contained the virus.

The prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Southern Sudan is said to be much lower than in neighbouring countries, but experts warn this provides false comfort.

All the ingredients for the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS are here: up to 4 million displaced people returning home, poverty, very low school enrolment, a rudimentary health system, and the powerlessness of women and girls, combined with cultural practices, polygamy and widow inheritance.

All the above provide There is fertile ground for a surge in HIV/AIDS infection in Southern Sudan, a region which has in reality lost a generation to war and can’t afford to loose yet another generation to HIV/AIDS.a fertile ground for a surge in HIV/AIDS infection in Southern Sudan, a region which has in reality lost a generation to war and can’t afford to loose yet another generation to HIV/AIDS.

With limited data from the available UNICEF-supported Voluntary Counselling and Testing (VCT) centres, and little sentinel surveillance on the diseases, the dividends of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in 2005 to end 21 years of war in the region are facing a real threat from HIV/AIDS.

UNICEF activities in the county focus on awareness workshops, developing training modules and capacity building among government and local NGOs as well as establishing and supporting VCT centres, Prevention of Mother To Child Transmission (PMTCT) and emphasizing abstinence as the first choice for the unmarried.

One approach to increase understanding and awareness has been a life skills education programme, an integrated approach to provide youth and women among others with several skills tailored towards behavioural change.

The module for HIV/AIDS prevention incorporates information and activities on relationships, facts about HIV/AIDS, how to avoid infection, living with HIV and caring for those affected by the virus.

The outcome of the life-skills training are women and children who have acquired skills in critical thinking, decision-making, communication, negotiation, coping, and self-management which are significant interventions in HIV/AIDS prevention. In 2007, UNICEF-supported awareness programmes reached 350,000 school students with information about HIV and AIDS, while 60,000 women benefited from VCT services – indicating that recognition of HIV as serious threat to health and development is increasing.

Worldwide 1,750 children under the age of 15 become infected with HIV every day and another 15 million have lost one or both parents to HIV.   This is all that most people know about children and HIV/AIDS.  While these statistics are important, people must move away from thinking of these children (and adults infected with HIV) as just numbers. 

The challenges of containing HIV/AIDS in Southern Sudan are enormous, but the opportunity to prevent HIV/AIDS from reaching epidemic exists now.

For children like Mary, and her mother, that opportunity cannot be squandered. Continued focus from partners and donors on the threat of HIV will be critical to ensuring a safer future for millions of children and women across Southern Sudan.



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