There’s growing concern the HIV/AIDS pandemic is “unraveling decades of progress for children,” especially girls. A coalition of nearly a dozen organizations says the problem is particularly bad in sub-Saharan Africa. But there are efforts to recruit children in the fight against the pandemic.
The Global Movement for Children says worldwide women and girls make up more than 60 percent of those between the ages of 15 and 24 who are living with HIV. When narrowed to just sub-Saharan Africa the percentage rises to 75 percent.
More than two million children under age 15 are reported living with HIV/AIDS. More than 15 million children under age 18 have lost one or both parents to the disease – most in sub-Saharan Africa. That’s up from eleven and a half million since 2001.
The effects of the pandemic among young people can be seen in a reversal of trends to reduce mortality and malnutrition – as well as efforts to expand education.
These reasons and more are behind the Lesson for Life program – a public education campaign taking place in 100,000 locations in 50 countries.
One of the groups taking part is PLAN International. David Muthungu is the organization’s regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa.
He says, "Plan International is organizing children’s events in Kenya, in Ethiopia, in Tanzania and many other countries. And the idea is for children themselves to talk to the public and to their peers about the impact of HIV/AIDS on them."
He says peer education is an essential part of the Lesson for Life campaign.
"We know that the best advocates for children are children themselves. Now, you can relate this to your own life experience. When you get some information or discussion with somebody who is your peer, it’s more impactful. You’re talking to an equal. You’re talking to an age group that is being affected and can feel it themselves," he says.
Surveys in 60 countries have shown that most young people “could not accurately say how HIV/AIDS is transmitted.” And in many sub-Saharan African countries, few girls between the ages of 15 and 24 “knew that a person who looks healthy could be infected with HIV.” “A lack of knowledge,” experts say, “that can be fatal.”
"Children themselves in Africa, particularly girls, get into sexual activity very early in life. And their having this kind of information for them to make informed decisions about their reproductive health practices would be very useful," he says.
Mr. Muthungu says a big part of the AIDS awareness effort comes in the form of drama, with children acting out scenes based on real-life situations. It also teaches the ABC method of AIDS prevention: Abstinence, Be faithful, and if necessary, Condoms.
He says, "The best prevention about HIV/AIDS is actually people having adequate information to make informed decisions about their sexual relationships. And I think it goes beyond boys and girls."
The Plan International official says young people are at the center of the HIV/AIDS pandemic – and their right to a good life must be protected.
"We would like to ask governments to prioritize the creative use of existing resources, so that boys and girls can benefit from them. To channel resources directly to the community level where the boys and girls live. We are also asking through this campaign to give priority to children affected by HIV/AIDS. And we are also trying to develop a supportive legislative framework that will target orphan and vulnerable children," he says.
The Lesson for Life campaign says, “Families are the best hope for children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS – but they require support not only for their immediate survival but for the long term.” Organizers say ensuring there are enough resources is “one of the major challenges facing governments and donors.”