A new outbreak is sweeping Botswana—education. There, students are learning the facts about HIV and AIDS in their country; for example, that one in five students has contracted the fatal virus, with an even higher rate among adults.
EDC’s Naomi Mnthali and Scott Pulizzi believe facts such as these will eventually replace widely held myths about HIV and AIDS. They hope to curtail a pandemic that has swept Botswana since the virus was first identified almost three decades ago.
Mnthali and Pulizzi are making Botswana history by implementing the country’s first required HIV and AIDS awareness curriculum called Living: Skills for Life, Botswana’s Window of Hope, created by EDC.
In partnership with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the Botswana Ministry of Education, EDC is now providing all K–12 teachers with professional development. Then, in 2010, the curriculum—which includes case studies of those living with and in danger of contracting the virus—will be introduced to students across the country.
“This is Botswana’s first national response to HIV and AIDS,” says Pulizzi. “First, we’re focused on professional development and the teachers’ well-being in general.”
EDC arranged for doctors to visit schools to educate teachers, many living with HIV and AIDS, about the virus. Teachers were introduced to a curriculum that will eventually be integrated into guidance counseling services and classrooms at all of Botswana’s schools. Within the classrooms, HIV and AIDS policy might be part of a unit in a government class, or a scientific explanation of the virus could be included in a biology class.
Pulizzi went into the project focused on HIV prevention, but quickly realized many students and teachers were living with the virus. That’s when the project regrouped to begin HIV education, looking at ways to live with the virus.
Ultimately, young people will grow to understand why Botswana’s level of HIV and AIDS is the second highest in the world, preceded only by nearby Swaziland.
“In Botswana, people have been afraid to talk about sexuality. There is little frank discussion about it, and it is difficult to challenge those societal norms,” says Pulizzi. “There are also many widely accepted misperceptions about HIV and AIDS.”
For example, many believe condoms can spread HIV or that circumcision is 100 percent effective in preventing the virus. Now students will be educated about the facts of how HIV spreads.
Building lasting change
The regional origin of the virus also remains a mystery to many in Botswana. So while shaping the curriculum, EDC tracked the evolution of HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.
“No one knows 100 percent why HIV and AIDS are so prevalent in Southern Africa, but one main theory is that there is a highly mobile male population because there are a lot of diamond mines. Workers from Africa go to the south—particularly Botswana—to work, and end up establishing sexual networks,” says Pulizzi.
After years of curriculum development, Pulizzi is confident that the program has longevity, particularly now. Between 1992 and 2008, former president Festus Mogae championed the country’s largest-ever effort to ramp up response to the pandemic, introducing prenatal care, condom distribution, and public education. New president Seretse Khama Ian Khama, who took office in 2008, has taken up the cause.
“President Khama has cracked down on alcohol abuse, which leads to poor decision-making and gender-based violence, and therefore indirectly contributes to the spread of HIV,” says Pulizzi.
The program is expected to sustain itself, and there is always room for refinement. Pulizzi envisions extending the program to the 10 or 20 percent of young people who are overlooked by the new curriculum because they don’t attend school.
“While Botswana is more developed than many African countries, there are still students who don’t have access to schools,” says Pulizzi. “Someday we’ll also bring HIV and AIDS education to Botswana’s hard-to-reach youth.”
Originally published on October 27, 2009