HIV/Aids strategy to empower learners

Friday, March 11, 2011

While research on HIV Prevalence, Incidence and Communication conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) in 2008 showed a decline in new HIV infections among teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19 as well as a lowered prevalence among children between the ages of 2 and 14, the Department of Basic Education hopes to play a more active role in reducing the number of new infections, writes Gabi Khumalo.

The Department has developed a Draft Integrated Strategy on HIV and Aids in an effort to respond to the most recent trends and evidence on the HIV epidemic and to ensure alignment of departmental plans with national plans outlined in the HIV and AIDS and STI National Strategic Plan (NSP) 2007-2011.

The primary goal for the strategy, currently out for public comment, is to improve knowledge about the transmission of HIV and to help learners make informed decisions. 

Over the past decade, the department has provided the HIV and Aids Life Skills Education Programme, embedded in the curriculum across all grades, through the Life Orientation Learning Area. 

The Strategy outlines seven outcome areas that will form the basis for programmatic interventions. These include: 

* Mainstreaming the response to HIV and AIDS across the schooling system, including evaluation and reporting systems
* Strengthening sexual and reproductive health education delivered through the curriculum as well as its associated pedagogy and teaching and learning material
* Supplementing the curriculum with co-curricular activities such as peer education programmes to reinforce messaging and to shift social norms on risk behaviours 
* And equipping educators, through pre-service and in-service training and development, with the requisite knowledge and skills to effectively deliver the life skills curriculum and to respond to their own needs on sexual and reproductive health, including HIV, among others.

Basic Education Deputy Minister, Enver Surty, says that HIV and Aids is a development challenge affecting every sector of society.

He says the education system is a critical lever for development and must play an active role in helping to reduce new infections and respond to the needs of those infected and affected by HIV/Aids. 

"Research and practice has taught us that we need a combination of bio-medical, behavioural and structural interventions, together with strong community involvement and political leadership."

Twelve years since the introduction of the National Policy on HIV and AIDS for Learners and Educators in Public Schools and Students and Educators in Further Education and Training Institutions, the international and national environment with respect to HIV and AIDS has changed dramatically, says Surty. 

"A wealth of knowledge has accumulated on what works and what does not, in particular, on what role the education system can play in preventing and mitigating the impact of HIV and Aids. Our own departmental programmes also had to shift and expand beyond the original mandate in response to the pressing challenges faced at school level.

"The policy was considered to be forward-looking for its time because of its strong human rights ethos and principle of non-discrimination adopted for both educators and learners infected by HIV and the department is proud to continue this legacy by presenting this forward-looking strategy that presents a comprehensive and integrated approach to HIV and Aids in the schooling system."

The scale of the epidemic in South Africa, the life skills education programme and other co-curricular interventions, says Surty, have increasingly taken on an ever-expanding care and support role for learners and educators and employee health and wellness programmes. Initiatives by teacher unions have also played a pivotal role.

"Given that 95 percent of school-going children are HIV negative, the department in partnership with sister government departments, including the Department of Health and other partners, has a decisive role to play in the promotion of intervention programmes on safer sexual behaviour among teenagers."

South African National Aids Council CEO, Nana Simelela, has commended the department for the document adding that it has a good grasp and understanding on what needs to be done. 

"No matter how hard you try to keep sex outside the classroom, it always finds its way inside, the biggest role is to arm learners with ways to expressed themselves when it comes to sex," says Simelela.

Simelela also encourages the need to find ways to empower learners to think outside the box as opposed to using the schools as just places for learning and urges teachers to put in place instruments that will allow learners to take more responsibilities for their health and well being.

"This is much more than knowledge, we need to understand the varied social dynamics of different schools and have the capacity to respond along a continuum of intervention," she explains.

South African Democratic Teacher Union (SADTU) General Secretary Mugwena Maluleke also commended the department's plan alignment with the NSP, noting that it will effectively contribute to the country response to the pandemic.

"Education alone may not help all learners but the inclusion of targeted youth friendly programmes on HIV prevention will promote retention of learners at school through increased ability to make good choices that will prevent cross generational and transactional sex that can result in teenage pregnancy," Maluleke says.

He further stresses the importance for the new strategy to target educators in particular for their own benefit and not just as a means to reach learners.

"SADTU has observed an increase in [the] uptake of voluntary counseling and testing in [the] Know Your Status Campaign. Consequently, over 10 000 members and communities, including hotel staff, parents, schools employees, have tested for HIV since the campaign started in 2008 with 3 386 tested within the HIV, Counseling and Testing campaign period.

"The high prevalence rates for adults aged 25 - 39 [young teachers in the profession are part of this group] has implications for mitigation and care, the role of unions in reaching this group is crucial," he explains.

While Education Labour Relations Council Executive Manager, Brian Shezi, commended the plan, but expressed concern about the draft being very learner focused whilst teachers are the first point of entry for a comprehensive approach to HIV and Aids. .

"If teachers themselves have not taken steps to adopt healthier lifestyles and reduce their HIV prevalence, it will be difficult for them to effectively deliver the sexual and reproductive health services proposed in the strategy," he says.

The draft strategy will be refined and finalised through a consultative process with key stakeholders at national, provincial, district and school level.

The department invites the public to review and provide commentary on the summary and full version of the strategy which can be found on its website www.education.gov.za. Comments can be sent to hivstrategy@dbe.co.za. The closing date for submissions is 30 September 2011.

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