The power of education in fostering a better and effective response to HIV and AIDS is undeniable.
Education promotes knowledge and with knowledge about HIV and AIDS, individuals, families and communities have the ability to make informed choices about their behavior.
However, governments and international donor organizations often underplay this important intervention, particularly in the emergency phase of the cycle of displacement, says a report recently issued by UNHCR and UNESCO on the importance of education to populations that find themselves victims of displacement due to conflict, disaster or other emergencies.
Education can play a key role in helping refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) cope with the negative excesses of their circumstances, such as ignorance, exploitation, violence and the risk of HIV infection.
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Many factors combine to put IDPs and refugees at the risk of HIV infection, including loss of livelihoods, lack of access to basic services, poverty, alcohol and drug abuse, and violence.
According to the report, internal displacement also increases sexual violence against women and girls, including the use of rape as a weapon of war, and breaks down social networks and institutions that usually provide support and regulate behavior.
"The additional disruption to health and education services reduces access to HIV prevention commodities, information and HIV-related treatment and care during conflict and flight," the report acknowledges.
The institutional disintegration that characterizes internally displaced communities poses a huge challenge to developing interventions to prevent HIV transmission and provide sexual and reproductive health services.
"For example, both the general socioeconomic situation of refugees and the specific provision of formal and non-formal education are quite different from elsewhere," states the UNESCO/UNHCR report, which is aimed at influencing policy-makers and implementers in ministries of education, civil society organizations and funding organizations involved in emergency, reconstruction and development responses.
In a time of crisis, education can offer structure, stability and hope as well as promote the acquisition of skills for life and support conflict resolution and peace-building. With increased knowledge, IDPs and refugees can acquire the necessary skills that can significantly help them to prevent HIV and cope with AIDS. Policymakers can improve the lives and livelihoods of IDPs and refugees by directing resources towards the education of displaced populations.
"It is critical that efforts be made to ensure that refugees and IDPs, particularly children and young people, have access to educational opportunities as education provides the knowledge and skills essential for the prevention of HIV, and protects individuals, families and communities from the impact of AIDS," says the report.
In addition, education can foster understanding and tolerance that can contribute to reduced stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV.
According to UNESCO and UNHCR, the needs of refugees and IDPs should be an element of national education sector policies on HIV and AIDS in affected countries. In other words, governments need to allocate funds in national budgets to cater to the educational needs of displaced populations.
But to ensure success, the affected communities should be involved in the design and implementation of programs. "Educational programs developed through consultation and consensus with the displaced and local host communities have a better chance of success than those imported and implemented directly," the report recommends.
Ignoring the needs of displaced populations will only impact negatively on the efforts of governments to develop a comprehensive response to HIV and AIDS. "Failure to address HIV-related needs of refugees not only denies refugees their rights, but undermines the effectiveness of HIV prevention and care efforts for surrounding communities," the report concludes.