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November 30, 2011

Rwanda Fights AIDS With Education

by Heather Murdock

Governments around the world today are kicking off programs intended to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS in acknowledgement of World AIDS Day. In Rwanda, health officials are launching an ambitious plan to bring educational programs into every single school in the country within the next three months.

In Kigali, World AIDS Day is a kind of festival.

Teenagers dressed in identical blue T-shirts distributed by the government sing and dance under a light rain, preparing to march in support of efforts to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.

The government says it is beginning a $650,000 effort to bring educational programs to every single village in Rwanda over the next three months.

Rwanda’s national social mobilization coordinator, Jean Marie Vianney Gatabazi, says 60 percent of Rwandans are under 25 years old. The program will focus on teaching health education and abstinence to young people.

Gatabazi says they also plan to distribute condoms to health centers and universities, but not in high schools.

"We are not going to distribute condoms to secondary schools because at their level you have to give them education," said Gatabazi. "And they have, also, to have those values as Rwandans to abstain and to delay sexual intercourse."

In this conservative society, many agree with the government’s choice, but recent government studies suggests that sex among teenagers is on the rise, and some Rwandans think condoms should be readily available for teenagers.

Sunny Ntayombya, a Rwandan columnist, says it is unrealistic to think that all teens will abstain, and that in a country where abortion is a crime, and unmarried pregnancies are considered shameful, readily available condoms are key to protecting young women.

"I believe you must be able to provide these tools that can save lives, and unwanted pregnancies, and keep girls in school," he said.

Ntayombya says he supports other government measures, like encouraging male circumcision to help slow the spread of HIV.

Studies have shown that circumcision can make it less likely for a man to contract HIV.  The World Health Organization says mass circumcision could prevent 4 million new HIV infections before 2025.

But at Rwanda’s AIDS Day rally, Gatabazi says not to forget that while circumcision can better your chances at staying healthy, to really prevent contracting the disease, even circumcised men need to wear a condom.

Photo Gallery: World AIDS Day