By any measure you choose, the scope of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Botswana is staggering. Nearly 25 percent of people between the ages of 15 and 49 in this African country are infected with HIV. In 2010, the latest year for which data is available, an estimated 14,000 became infected with the virus. That same year, 5,700 people died from AIDS. (In comparison, the number of AIDS deaths in the United States, whose population is 150 times larger than Botswana, was just under 17,000 that year.)
But public health officials in Botswana are wasting no time. They are waging an aggressive public health and information campaign against HIV/AIDS, and are focusing on the number 0—as in zero new HIV infections by 2016. A major weapon in this fight is a curriculum titled Living, Skills for Life: Botswana’s Window of Hope. A collaborative effort between EDC and the Botswana Ministry of Education, the materials are now being rolled out to every school in the country.
Learning through living
Designed for both primary and secondary students, Living, Skills for Life teaches young people about respecting others, personal responsibility, and making healthy decisions—all wrapped around the single goal of giving students the facts about HIV, AIDS, and sexually transmitted infections.
Teachers are expected to spend at least 40 minutes each week using the materials. The larger goal, though, is that teachers bring the curriculum’s themes of respecting others, protecting your health, and having a positive outlook into their instruction at large.
To support teachers in implementing Living, Skills for Life, EDC staff have been conducting site visits all across Botswana. These visits have given them the chance to observe classroom lessons, offer constructive feedback to teachers, and take care of more basic issues, such as ensuring that all teachers have access to the curriculum. So far in 2012, they have reached 700 teachers in 67 schools.
This work is being led by EDC’s Naomi Mnthali. Raised in Botswana, the former curriculum specialist now travels the country training teachers and administrators about HIV prevention and education. “I’m a teacher by profession, and young people have always been close to me,” she says. “I feel that if we can get young people to make the right choices then we are building a good future for the country.”
One benefit of the site visits has been the creation of informal mentoring circles among teachers. These circles encourage teachers to share ideas about how best to use the curriculum, helping to ensure that there is school-based support for the materials in the absence of EDC staff.
Mnthali barely hesitates when asked about the real, human impact of the Living, Skills for Life materials. “We were doing a training with some teachers who had piloted the materials,” she recalls. “One teacher stood up, in front of everyone, and said that if it wasn’t for these materials, she would have committed suicide. We share that story wherever we go.”
Botswana has made a concerted effort over the past decade to respond to the HIV epidemic within its borders. Billboards discussing safe sex dot the landscape, and radio dramas feature characters living with HIV. But changing human behavior is difficult. “This work shows me that there is still a lot of misinformation out there,” says Mnthali.
But working with teachers has given Mnthali hope that the country can continue to reduce the number of new infections. The trainings generate a lot of discussion, and she thinks that these open conversations about safe sex, risky behavior, and the facts about HIV help teachers learn how to create a safe environment for similar conversations within their classrooms.
With HIV-infection rates still very low among children aged 5–14, health officials in Botswana believe their hope of achieving an AIDS-free generation is within their grasp. Mnthali believes it is a lofty but essential goal. “I’ve personally lost people to HIV and AIDS, largely due to ignorance,” she says. “We need to educate, to provide as much information as possible.”
Originally published on July 31, 2012