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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”

Deadly silence: barriers to communicating HIV/AIDS in schools

An estimated 11.8 million 15 to 24-year-olds are living with HIV worldwide. Schools are the obvious place to teach young people about the risks of infection. But what is the best way to do this? Research by ActionAid identifies a number of silences in communication which are hindering efforts in the classroom.

Donors, governments and civil society quickly saw the potential of school-based sexual reproductive health education in the fight against HIV. Lessons on HIV/AIDS prevention have been incorporated into education systems in the vast majority of resource-poor countries. ActionAid’s study investigated how schools in Tamil Nadu, India, and Nyanza, Kenya, implement their state-sponsored HIV/AIDS curriculum. It tackled several questions:

  • What is the parental and community demand for school-based HIV/AIDS education?
  • What role do schools have in teaching young people about HIV?
  • How is HIV/AIDS education being taught in the classroom?
  • What difficulties affect the delivery of school-based HIV/AIDS education?

Researchers sought the attitudes of 3706 teachers, pupils, parents and other key stakeholders. They found that teachers and schools play a key role in teaching young people about HIV and AIDS in both countries. Young people and their parents view the school as a trusted place to learn about HIV, believing HIV to be a serious problem. 87% of Indian teachers and 90% of Kenyan teachers feel that their profession has a responsibility to teach young people about HIV and AIDS. But their efforts are undermined by:

  • perceived parental disapproval
  • religious barriers (particularly in Kenya)
  • underlying attitudes that HIV only happens to ‘them’ and not ‘us’
  • social and cultural restraints in discussing HIV/AIDS, sexual relations and power inequalities, leading to a ‘paradox of safer sex’
  • the wider crisis in education, including huge classes, packed curricula and a lack of training opportunities and learning materials
  • large numbers of out-of-school children who will not be reached by school-based HIV/AIDS education.

The result is often ‘selective teaching’ which either leaves out entire lessons on HIV altogether or sticks to overly-scientific discussions without direct reference to sex or sexual relationships. Selective teaching creates silences in communication around condoms and often lessons rely on abstinence only messages, thus failing to reach the many young people who are already sexually active. The researchers also emphasise that the success of HIV education is unlikely to improve without dramatic improvements to underlying education systems. This will require a massive injection of financial resources at every level. Other recommendations include:

  • targeting all sectors of society including religious leaders, the media and families, promoting open positive and accurate communication on HIV
  • taking advantage of pre-existing systems of knowledge transfer
  • moving away from an overly scientific approach to HIV/AIDS education
  • creating locally-driven learning materials that help children to understand the human side of HIV
  • focussing on power and communication issues in wider human relationships.

Contributor(s): Tania Boler, Amina Ibrahim, Ranjin Adoss and Margaret Shaw

‘The sound of silence: difficulties in communicating on HIV/AIDS in schools’, London: ActionAid, by T. Boler, A. Ibrahim, R. Adoss and M. Shaw, 2003  

Funded by: ActionAid

id21 Research Highlight: 6 August 2003

Further Information:
Tania Boler

Education and HIV Adviser
Hamlyn House
Macdonald Road
London N19 5PG

Tel: +44 (0)20 7561 7568
Fax: +44 (0)20 7272 0899

Actionaid, UK