EQUATE Technical Brief

Publication Date
September 20, 2007

This United States Agency for International Development (USAID) technical brief examines the relationship between gender disparities in schools and the spread of HIV/AIDS and offers suggestions for USAID staff and implementing partners in designing appropriate education sector strategies for mitigating the impacts of HIV/AIDS by addressing gender inequality.

According to the briefing: " Globally, it is estimated that HIV has infected 2.3 million children under the age of 15 and 10 million youth between the ages of 15 and 24, the majority of which are female (...2006). Young women and girls are at higher risk of becoming infected than young boys and men....Poverty, economic dependence, lack of information, and harmful traditional practices make women vulnerable to unprotected and coercive sex. These same forces limit females’ educational opportunities, perpetuating the social conditions that relegate women to a lower status than men and facilitate the spread of HIV....Boys who have been socialized to act out traditional and often violent masculine roles do so at school, contributing to the devastating phenomenon of school-related gender-based violence (SRGBV). SRGBV places girls at increased risk of sexual abuse, coercive sex, STIs [sexually transmitted infections], and unwanted pregnancies, and is carried out not only by their male peers, but by male teachers as well. While girls are the primary victims of such abuse, boys are not exempt from the effects of SRGBV. Many boys report feeling helpless when they see gender-based violence occurring in the classroom, knowing that they are ultimately powerless to intervene. This is psychologically damaging and perpetuates the cycle of entrenched and harmful gender norms that contribute to the spread of HIV."

Because, as stated here, a good quality education is considered one of the key defences against HIV, schooling can act as a factor in HIV/AIDS deterrence.

Strategies for integrating gender and responding to HIV in education programmes include the following:

  • Consider innovative approaches to delivering education such as flexible scheduling, radio-based instruction, and community schooling which make education more accessible to vulnerable children, including street children, orphans, those without financial means, and those caring for family members. An example is the Education Development Center (EDC)/USAID Interactive Radio Instruction Program for Out-Of-School Children and Orphans in Zambia - "These radio programs were taught in community learning centers so that travel time and expense did not prohibit students from participating. The programs allowed children to complete a grade one curriculum in 100 half-hour radio broadcasts. The information communicated in the broadcasts was tailored to the specific needs of at-risk youth and included life-skills lessons and information regarding HIV/AIDS alongside the standard grade one curriculum." (This project was subsequently scaled up to include grades 1 - 5.)
  • Provide gender awareness training that is specifically designed to help teachers examine their own biases, discourage stereotypes, define classroom roles, and learn how to support change in gender equality. This can be added to pre-service programmes or designed as an in-service addition to help achieve these objectives and enable teachers to be more effective when delivering life-skills education. An example is the YouthNet project on improving reproductive health and preventing HIV among young people, which outlines a number of applicable tips including establishing clear objectives and setting up an oversight mechanism. Also, the Fundamental Quality and Equity Levels (FQEL) project in Guinea has day-long bimonthly trainings to raise awareness about gender and HIV/AIDS, to promote dialogue among educators and to provide them with the knowledge and resources to answer students’ questions about HIV/AIDS comfortably and accurately.
  • Provide comprehensive skills-based health education programmes to all students. Life-skills education can improve young people’s ability to make healthier choices and understand broader societal issues related to power relations, social stigma, and rights and responsibilities. For example, the Adolescent Peer Organized Network (APON) in Bangladesh uses reading centres as spaces where adolescents, mostly girls, can learn about reproductive health issues while gaining literacy, communication, and entrepreneurship skills, including training in areas of journalism, livestock, and tailoring.
  • Teach boys at an early age that men and women are equal since, as stated here, harmful attitudes about females formed in childhood stay with both sexes through adulthood. As they grow older, boys also need the opportunity to develop new notions of masculinity that challenge misconceptions and offer positive models of behaviour. Specifically, recent approaches that encourage males to change negative behaviours and practices signal a departure from placing the responsibility for improved gender relations on women and girls alone. For example, the Conscientizing Male Adolescents (CMA) Program in Nigeria focuses on secondary school boys aged 14 - 18 through a classroom-based process of dialogue and inquiry that enables participants to question and challenge existing gender norms and behaviours.
  • Work with parents and communities in a sustained manner to support changes in norms necessary for developing appropriate roles and actions for boys and girls. Involving community leaders, including faith-based representatives and district and ministry officials, helps, according to this document, build ownership of the initiative at a systemic level and enables a more sustainable and scalable transition of the intervention. For example, the Kafue Adolescent Reproductive Health Project (KARHP) in Zambia trains parent and elder educators to encourage parent-child communication regarding reproductive health (RH) through community meetings, religious meetings, and monthly parent-teacher association meetings, as well as weekly home visits.
  • Establish youth clubs with peer education activities that model gender-appropriate behaviours and leadership.
  • Promote safe schools and protect students, particularly girls, from sexually-based gender violence. The Safe Schools Program proposes three main types of interventions: organising prevention programmes which include trainings for students, parents, community members, and teachers aimed at reducing SRGBV, developing response networks of volunteer community counsellors for victims, and instituting reporting systems that encompass legislation-strengthening at the school or community level. The programme is currently being piloted in Ghana and Malawi.
  • Use the education sector to catalyse coalitions to promote gender equitable norms through wider partnerships. For example, Communities Supporting HIV/AIDS, Nutrition, Gender and Equity Education in Schools (CHANGES) in Zambia incorporates nutritional interventions, skills-based health education (with a focus on HIV/AIDS and malaria), educational achievement incentives, and cognitive development strategies focused primarily on girls and other vulnerable children.

The document concludes that: "The need to consider such [gender-related] complexities that surround HIV/AIDS is becoming more apparent....When interventions combat HIV/AIDS in ways that address gender relations and education, as is the case in the examples highlighted here, the results become mutually reinforcing and the impact is greater than the sum of its individual parts."