HARGEISA, 17 April 2010 (Somalilandpress) – A new programme is targeting about 800 primary and junior high school students in northwestern Somalia’s self-declared republic of Somaliland with HIV/AIDS messages for the first time.
“The children’s ages range from seven to 19. Of course, most of them are not sexually active now – we targeted them for several reasons … every student comes from a family and he will pass the message to his family. Also, they are the next generation at high risk of HIV,” said Mohamoud Hassan Abdillahi, executive director of Somaliland Health and Social Care Organization (SOHASCO).
The messages, which SOHASCO hopes will eventually raise awareness in thousands of people, included information on how HIV is transmitted and how to prevent infection, as well as the extent of the epidemic in Somaliland; an estimated 1.4 percent of people are infected.
“I was only aware of sexual intercourse transmission of the disease, but now I know three ways that HIV/AIDS is transmitted – illegal sexual intercourse, giving blood to someone without checking, as well as using sharp elements such as the knives, used in traditional operations,” said Abdirasak Hussein Hashi, 19, of Sheikh Bashir primary/intermediate school.
HIV advocates have praised the campaign but many local people are less pleased that their children are being introduced to sexual matters at such a young age.
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“I don’t like students to be taught about HIV/AIDS; when they reach the mature age, they have to be instructed in Islam [so as] not to do the behaviours of high risk, such as adultery,” said Ali Jama Abdi, father of a child. “In our religion it is not allowed for children to be taught what is considered as shameful.”
According to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), policies to reduce the vulnerability of children and young people to HIV cannot be implemented without the full cooperation of the education sector.
Although some of SOHASCO’s messages could be perceived as stigmatising people living with HIV by their use of terms like “illegal sex”, “immorality” and “adultery” to describe how HIV is transmitted, this is the only acceptable way of passing on such information in conservative, Muslim Somaliland. Messages intended to reduce stigma were also included.
“Our slogans were carrying messages like, ‘Stop HIV/AIDS’, ‘HIV/AIDS is very dangerous to every human being, including whites, blacks and Muslims’, ‘Abstinence is the best way of avoiding HIV/AIDS’ and ‘Together we can stop HIV/AIDS’,” Abdillahi said.
SOHASCO said teachers also experienced difficulties. “The teachers know about HIV/AIDS, but their problem is that they do not have the materials, and the subject is not in the syllabus,” said Hassan Jama Abdillahi, principal of Gacma-Dheere School. “It [HIV education] is a crucial step that obliges us to protect our youth from the dangers of this disease.”
According to the Somaliland National AIDS Commission, an HIV education syllabus is being drafted and will be included in school curriculums by the end of 2010.