Church World Service-Pakistan/Afghanistan continues to strive for a healthier and more educated population. In January 2009, through its partner, Young Men’s Christian Association-Sri Lanka, CWS-P/A initiated a project that educates adolescents about HIV & AIDS. Through awareness sessions, workshops, poster competitions, and dissemination of informative pamphlets, the project, HIV & AIDS Education Program in Schools in Sri Lanka, increases teachers’ and students’ awareness of HIV & AIDS.
Nearing the end of the one-year project, CWS-P/A’s Beenish Hashwani conducted an interview with Wamnakulasuriya Rohan Suraj Fernando, the focal person for the project. Mr. Fernando shares the context in which the project is being implemented as well as the challenges and achievements faced so far.
Beenish: “Can you explain a little about the current HIV situation in Sri Lanka?”
Mr. Fernando: “The HIV situation is rapidly changing by the day. By the end of July 2009 2,300 people were identified as being HIV + and of them 911 had AIDS. It is important to mention that these are the people who have chosen to come forward with their HIV status and there are many people in the villages who could be HIV + but do not disclose their status as they fear being ostracized by the community.
According to Dr. Moonamale, a retired gynecologist, a major problem faced by Sri Lankan youth is the vast spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Many of the girls do not know much about STDs and once they have an STD they are afraid to talk about their issue even with a doctor. They commonly believe that STDs and AIDS can be spread by mere touching. Since having an STD makes one more prone to HIV, therefore, it is vital that youth are made aware about STDs and then link it to HIV & AIDS.”
Beenish: “How well of an understanding of HIV do you think the general population has?”
Mr. Fernando: “Sadly most of the people think it’s a curse given by God. They think it’s a punishment given by God as people should only have sex with their spouse. They believe that if they are faithful to their spouse they can prevent themselves from HIV. These myths generally are because people consider HIV to be associated only with sex and are not aware about the other modes of HIV transmission such as blood transfusions, etc. Another societal problem is that young people greatly respect their elders, and even if the daughter-in-law is a doctor but her mother-in-law is a person who still believes in commonly HIV associated myths, the daughter-in-law will also agree with the mother-in-law either out of fear and/or respect. So regardless if people are educated or not they are bound by strong cultural pressures which make them think otherwise. So in a nutshell the general awareness of people is rather poor.”
Beenish: “The current project on HIV, can you give some details on that?”
Mr. Fernando: “Keeping the current contextual HIV situation of Sri Lanka, the project was aimed at educating youth about HIV & AIDS. Therefore, the project was implemented in schools in Trincomalee District, Ampara District, Colombo District, Galle District, Kandy District, Gampaha District, Jaffna District, Batticaloa District, and Kegalle District. It was also felt that in order to have a sustainable impact, teachers should also be educated on HIV so that they can guide the youth in future, too, and also serve as a resource for students to approach. In the project so far we have been able to conduct 12 workshops for students and 11 workshops for the school teachers. The poster and art competitions are to take place in November.”
Beenish: “What challenges did you face during this project?”
Mr. Fernando: “One of the biggest challenges faced during the project was seeking permission from the Education Department. We needed to approach them so that we could get permission to conduct the sessions in schools. The schools in Colombo were not given permission and as a result there were no sessions that took place in Colombo. Secondly, it was also hard to gain permission for the theater activities; as a result we had to re-strategize this component of the project.”
Beenish: “What, in your opinion, has been the achievement of this project?”
Mr. Fernando: “I think the greatest achievement of the project is that we have been able to successfully target a very vulnerable group of people in Sri Lanka, the youth. Most of the youth targeted are O and A level students. Also, we have been able to further develop and strengthen our contacts within the Education Department, which could prove to be very resourceful for future projects.”
Beenish: “How aligned is your work (the current project) with the government policies on HIV?”
Mr. Fernando: “Our project has been very consistent with the government policies. The aim of the project has been to supplement the government led HIV initiatives and not adopt an isolated strategy. This is evident from the fact that we were given both permission and support from the Education Department to conduct the workshops for the students and teachers. So much so that we were also granted permission to use university lecturers to conduct the workshops. We were also provided booklets and other information to disseminate during the workshops.”
Beenish: “As a country, what kind of HIV interventions do you think Sri Lanka needs to adopt?”
Mr. Fernando: “I think we need to focus future HIV interventions that are based on behavioral change. Simply providing information might not be enough and in the Sri Lankan context it is important to often adopt a multi-target population approach. For example, it is not enough to focus awareness programs on only wives but the husbands should also be involved. HIV related stigma is also extremely widespread and to tackle this we need to have national level advocacy media campaigns. In the villages where people regularly listen to the radio, messages need to be broadcast on the local radio whereas for population living in the cities documentaries need to be aired on national TV.”
HIV & AIDS Education Program in Schools in Sri Lanka was made possible with support from United Methodist Church Global AIDS Fund, which is part of General Board of Global Ministries.