28th November 1999

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Let's talk about sex

AIDS Coalition for Care, Education and Support Services goes to
schools to create awareness of the 'killer' disease
By Kumudini Hettiarachchi

"From where did you get information on sexual health? How many of your friends are sexually active?"

No, we The Sunday Times are not conducting a survey, for World AIDS Day on December 1, but these are part of a questionnaire that the AIDS Coalition for Care, Education and Support Services has taken into schools in a major programme for creating awareness on the killer disease, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

And the answers to the questions ranging from reproductive health and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) to human immuno-deficiency virus (HIV) and AIDS have brought out some interesting findings.

"We haven't analyzed the answers yet, but it is quite clear that many of the students who took part in the survey don't know much about their bodies, let alone the reproductive system," Programme Co-ordinator Ann Moller said.

Citing an example, she said that to the simple question whether the anus is part of the male or female body or common to both, the students had ticked "male".

The KAP (knowledge, attitude and practice) survey is being conducted among 950 schoolchildren in the 15 to 19 age group in 15 schools in Colombo and four in Negombo. The schools are a mix of private, semi-government and government and the surveyed group consists of both boys and girls.

Explaining how the germ of such an idea developed, Mrs. Moller said, the United Nations theme for this year is "Young People" and in keeping with the policy of "listen, learn and live" with regard to the World AIDS Campaign with Children and Young People, the Coalition decided that AIDS awareness should start in schools.

In July, a very active member of the Coalition, Mrs. Mallika Ganasinghe suggested that they form a "Youth for AIDS Awareness" group and garnered the support of 15 boys and girls in the 16 to 18 age-category, from various schools in Colombo. These young ones put their heads together and drew up the questionnaire in the three languages English, Sinhala and Tamil.

"We then submitted it to the National STD Programme of the Health Ministry and the Education Ministry for their approval. Later we contacted the Principals of the schools earmarked in the Western Province and went in with their permission. The girls were shy at first to talk about these issues, while the boys were more open. But they all took it very seriously," Mrs. Moller said.

Conceding that the Western Province may not be representative of the whole country, she said they were thinking of widening the programme later to cover other areas as well.

The ultimate aim of the programme funded by UNICEF, is to take the results of the survey and draw up a working paper for a two-day youth symposium scheduled for February next year. Ten students and a teacher from the schools already surveyed would be invited to participate along with officials from the Health Ministry, Education Ministry, UNICEF and several non-governmental organizations.

The symposium will end with 10 workshops with a student from each school being part of each workshop, along with other adults where HIV/STD, reproductive health, nutrition, human rights, support for AIDS victims will be discussed at length. Recommendations will also be put forward on how to continue AIDS awareness work. The students and teachers, once they go back to their schools, will act as a core group in making their peers aware of these issues.

Mrs. Moller said among principals and teachers in the schools they visited, the majority reaction was positive. "They know it is an important subject, but because of the culture, they find it difficult to talk about it."

"Reproductive health is part of the curriculum. But several students have told us that teachers say 'Don't make too much of it'. The students don't even know the parts of their bodies," she said.

They were reluctant to answer the qusetion on how many of their friends were sexually active. To the question from whom they got their information on sexual health, the majority said, 'friends'.

"And this is a dangerous trend, because they can be misinformed," Mrs. Moller added.

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