The discussion is heated, as differing views of religion and tradition are brought to the fore. But by delicately embracing such taboo subjects, UNICEF’s programme in HIV/AIDS prevention advances awareness.
“When we first started, the subject was very taboo,” says UNICEF Project Officer Hanadi Jaber. “But now there is more acceptance. The way that we are spreading these messages is science-based, professional and takes into consideration the culture and norms.”
Health and environment teacher Jilal Odeh ran headlong into tradition when he began teaching his students about HIV and AIDS. His village, Habla, is situated in the northern edge of the occupied West Bank, and he says many of its young men, who work in Israel, are at higher risk of substance abuse and other risky behaviour.
“At first it was difficult for the religious men in the village to accept,” says Odeh, 31, of the resistance he faced. Some in the village feared that talking about taboo subjects might cause young people to investigate on their own.
“But it was not long before they were bringing their sons to the workshops,” Odeh continues, “and even talking in the mosque in support of the classes.”
He says he convinced the naysayers by starting with UNICEF life skills training, where adolescents are taught teamwork and communications skills, before moving on to the subject of how HIV is spread and how to prevent infection.
While 87.5 per cent of Palestinian youth aged 15-29 are aware of HIV and AIDs, says the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, only 8.8 per cent of adolescents aged 15-19, know that unprotected sex, unsafe blood transfusion and intravenous drugs can cause HIV infection.
“The families were surprised by how much they were affected by what they learned,” says Odeh, describing how they began to feel empathy for those living with HIV and AIDS.
According to UNICEF statistics, there were 45,000 youth aged 15-24 in the Middle East and North Africa living with HIV in 2008. Across occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), there are 66 reported cases of HIV and AIDS.
“My specialty is biology,” says health fieldworker, Yusef Salah. “I have understanding but the material itself is hard. Our role is to explain the difference between HIV and AIDS and how HIV is transferred from person to person. We use this workshop to try to change the attitudes of the students from negative to positive.”
Mirvat al-Bireh, 36, teaches at a school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. She says that the training has helped her, other teachers and even students handle cases of incest and sexual violence.
“With any subject, if we speak about it and tie it to religion,” says al-Bireh, “then the path is very easy. It is easy to get close to the students this way.”
The UNICEF workshop, held in Nablus, Hebron and Ramallah, includes sessions with a religious leader and a lawyer, who discuss the sharia’ (Islamic law) and legal background for HIV and AIDS awareness.
Across oPt, UNICEF works with partners to equip children and adolescents with knowledge and skills on how to develop healthy behaviours that protect them from drugs and HIV. In 2010, it will carry out a Knowledge, Attitude, Practices and Behaviour (KAPB) survey to measure adolescent perceptions on risky behaviours, HIV and AIDS. Funding is provided by the Global Fund to fight HIV and AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (GFATM).