Around the world, more often
than not, HIV is transmitted sexually. Here’s a radical idea:
teach individuals about their sexuality so that they can make informed
choices and more effectively protect themselves from sexual transmission
of HIV. While this idea might seem like common sense to those of us
engaged in work related to sexual and reproductive health and rights,
sexuality education is not the go-to strategy for the majority of HIV
prevention programs, even those targeting sexual transmission.
In fact, in the broad range of curricula and outreach, from lifeskills
training to abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and beyond, open
and honest sexuality education is often missing from the mix.
This absence of sexuality education
from the battery of information needed to equip individuals is precisely
why the High Level Meeting on AIDS side event, Overcoming Barriers
to Educating Young People about Sex and HIV, was so important.
The Joint United Nations Programme on AIDS (UNAIDS) Secretariat, the
United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO),
the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and the International Planned
Parenthood Federation (IPPF) organized this luncheon on the first official
day of the High Level Meeting on AIDS in New York. They assembled
ministers of health, ambassadors to the UN and members of civil society.
The session started off with a panel presentation featuring Sanyiyoko
Hoilett, a peer educator from Jamaica; Dr. Jose Angel Cordova-Villalobos,
Minister of Health from Mexico; and Michel Sidibe, UNAIDS Deputy Executive
Then there was a shift, and
we, the invited guests, got down to work. No free lunch here!
The seating assignments at each table were strategic, much like the
breakdown of the panel: high level government officials and representatives,
youth leaders and other members of civil society. Each table set
out to answer two important questions: "What are the barriers to educating
young people about sex and HIV in your countries?" and "What promising
approaches or solutions can you recommend to overcome these barriers?"
Some of the barriers that my
table identified were religious opposition, "moral panic," cultural
taboos around talking about sexuality, inadequate training for teachers,
no available curriculum for youth in school, and lack of access to youth
who are not in school. Some of the successful approaches that
we identified were advocating for change at local levels of governance,
using evidence on effectiveness of sexuality education and HIV prevention
to compel policy makers to make changes, educating religious leaders
to garner their support, and creating demand among the target populations.
Such a rich discussion and interaction in the land of formal statements,
declarations and negotiated texts!
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Do we know whether this discussion
will influence the Ministers of Health and ambassadors to the UN in
attendance? We have no explicit way to measure this outcome.
I do, however, think that the organizers of this event were on to something:
bringing key stakeholders, who normally do not all sit at the same table,
literally and figuratively, together to talk shop.
We need to keep thinking of
creative means of engagement across the public and private sectors and
of how to make full use of opportunities such as this High Level Meeting
on AIDS. Sexuality education is a key component to preventing
the sexual transmission of HIV, and we need to engage at all levels,
in whatever way we can be heard to ensure that each individual has access
to the full range of information available.