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Cameroon: Educating youth to tackle HIV/AIDS in the community

In the "Lets Talk About AIDS" lesson, teacher Sarah gives 10 and 11 year olds key facts about HIV/AIDS. She explains how the virus is transmitted and how they can protect themselves in years to come.

This story is part of a series published on the occasion of World Teachers' Day, 5 October - a day to celebrate teachers and the central role they play in guiding children, youths & adults through the life-long learning process.

Yaounde, Cameroon, 1 October, 2009 - Teacher Sarah Hyoba, 49, quizzes a group of enthusiastic 10 to 11 year olds on HIV/AIDS at the Essos 2 primary school in Yaounde.

In the "Lets talk about Aids" lesson, Sarah’s students study a book containing  information on the virus to prepare themselves for a mini test. It turns into a lively debate as the youngsters jostle each other to raise their hands when questions are asked. 

"The children are curious and are really interested in learning about HIV/AIDS and ask lots of questions," she says.

"Children don’t know what HIV/AIDS is. I have to make sure I explain it clearly, so there are no misunderstandings," she added.

Discussing with children about HIV/AIDS
Discussing HIV/AIDS is a taboo within the community and children are a good vehicle to disseminate vital facts, according to Sarah.  "Some families won’t acknowledge that a person has HIV/AIDS, they will say it’s something else, such as malaria or some other disease".

The teacher gives key messages to the pupils and emphasizes the need for them to help dispel rumors about the infection.

"It’s important to change perceptions and for our children to know what HIV/AIDS is".

The prevalence and risks related to HIV/AIDS in the country is high.  Some 500,000 people in Cameroon are infected, of this number 69,000 are under the age of 15, according to UNAIDS (2005).

The situation prompted the government to make it mandatory for primary school children, aged between 6 and 12, to learn about HIV/AIDS as part of the country’s national curriculum.

Depending on the age group, the children are fed vital nuggets of information such as how the virus is contracted, living with someone who is HIV positive and issues related to stigma and discrimination. 

"I had two cases in school where children spoke frankly and said that they knew of someone with HIV/AIDS and a child whose parent had died from AIDS".

An interactive training process
In order to control the spread of the HIV virus in the country, a special training program was implemented by the Ministry of Basic Education with support from UNICEF.

750 teachers across the country have been enrolled in the program, with the aim of reaching 900 by mid October 2009.

"The training program in government teaching centers is a sign of government commitment to tackle a key problem," Dr. Vijitha M. Eyango, Chief of Education, UNICEF Cameroon said.

"When you are able to get these messages into the national curriculum it’s also a sign of sustainability because the message is not only for the children, but it also gets back to the parents and the rest of the community".

The schools targeted under the programme, span across all 6 regions in the country, the Center, Littoral, East, Adamaoua, North and Far-North. Groups of around 30 teachers are trained in a two day workshop.

"We show the teachers how to prepare a lesson and how to incorporate HIV/AIDS in the subject they are teaching," teacher trainer, Jacqueline Bahida said.

The training focuses on appropriate teaching methods. "For example the teachers must use the right language and give correct information on the transmission of the virus as there are many rumors that get passed around creating misinformation and discrimination," Bahida added.

It’s a highly interactive process. "The teachers engage in discussion and exchange ideas and correct one another through these training sessions. This has a greater impact in the long run".

Starting young is essential

Bahida says it’s never too early to start learning about HIV/AIDS given the scale of the virus in Africa. "I believe we should start educating children on this issue even earlier and in nursery school."

There are 15,000 primary schools countrywide in Cameroon and education officials say they want to step up efforts.

"We must train more teachers on this issue, the message must spread much further and across all districts and areas of the country," Bahida added.

By Salma Zulfqar



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