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MOZAMBIQUE: Schools provide safe space to talk about sex

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

MAPUTO, 8 March (PLUSNEWS) - Twenty-six-year-old Lucia stands confidently in front of a class of about 30 children aged between 12 and 18, asking them a series of direct questions about sexual practices, sexual transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS.

Lucia (not her real name) belongs to Kindlimuka (meaning "wake up" in Ronga, a local language), a non-profit association of people living with, or supporting those with HIV/AIDS. Lucia is HIV-positive.

She has participated in training to give lessons to pupils aged 13 to 18 in a UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) supported project, which began five years ago. The trainers, all from Kindlimuka, teach in 21 schools in the capital, Maputo, and the neighbouring city of Matola.

The lessons, which last 45 minutes, are participatory and encourage debate and frank discussion about subjects that are normally taboo at home. The activists also train a small group of pupils to become activists themselves within the school, so that there is some continuity outside the classroom.

Although a few of the pupils are shy with Lucia at first, they increasingly open up and express their ideas without reservations.

The day PlusNews visited, she distributed cards to the pupils with text on each. Their job was to decide whether the behaviour described on a card should be put under the "High Risk", "Low Risk" or "No Risk" column. There was no universal agreement on the varied statements, such as: "Eating off the same plate as an HIV-positive person", "kissing", "having sex".

In another class, 29-year-old Simiao Vasco, the coordinator of the project, uses a model wooden penis to show both the girls and the boy’s proper condom use. They watched attentively as he rolled the condom on the model without any obvious embarrassment, testimony to his ease with his pupils and their hunger for knowledge about an epidemic that is touching more and more of them personally.

Fifteen-year-old Orlanda Carrini, who was the liveliest in the classroom, told IRIN that she especially welcomed the space in school to talk about HIV/AIDS. She said it is not so easy at home, and it became even more difficult when she saw her uncle dying. "When I asked my family whether my uncle was dying of AIDS, I was told it was not my business," said Carrini. "My step-mother said I should respect my elders and not ask things I know nothing about."

So Orlanda used to visit her uncle without understanding his situation. She just hoped he would get better. But over the past two years it gradually became clear that that would not be the case. Her uncle died last year at the age of 30 leaving behind a widow and a young child.

"It was only after my uncle died that my aunt told me that he had AIDS. I loved him so much," said Orlanda, who looks suddenly at a loss in the midst of a hoard of excited pupils playing around her in the school's dusty grounds.

"I want to learn more and more about HIV/AIDS. I can talk about HIV/AIDS in the school more than at home. At home my stepmother tells me I must not have sexual relations until I am 18 years, but otherwise we don't talk about sex or HIV/AIDS. I want to train as an activist to teach people about HIV/AIDS. There is so much ignorance in our communities. People just don't want to talk about it."

Orlanda's classmate, 18-year-old Bernardinho Matsinhe, said he welcomed the lessons especially since his 17-year-old friend has tested HIV- positive. "These lessons have helped me know how to talk to him when I visit him. He has dropped out of school, but we are still good friends." Asked whether he has a girlfriend, Matsinhe replied, that he had never had a sexual relationship, "but when I do, I will use a condom."

Young people today in Mozambique are increasingly more informed about HIV/AIDS. Besides the Kindlimuka project, the government also supports civic education in schools where pupils over 12 learn about life skills, including the dangers of teenage pregnancies, STDs and HIV/AIDS.

HIV/AIDS is spreading at an alarming rate. Mozambique, one of the world's poorest countries, has got one of the world's highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates with 13.6 percent of the adult population infected with the virus. There is considerable geographical variation, with the highest rate in the port city of Beira, a major city in the central region, where the prevalence is as high as 26.5 percent of the adult population. It is estimated that 500 people, mostly young people, are newly infected each day.

Yet, despite the massive scale of the problem and the new initiatives to talk about HIV/AIDS, people still react to HIV/AIDS with denial, discrimination and blind fear.

Even Lucia's frankness in the classroom is not practiced at home. She tested positive for HIV/AIDS in 1998, and has since suffered a variety of opportunistic infections including tuberculosis and herpes.

At the time she was living with her mother because she had argued with her husband. Although she has reunited with her partner, her mother advised her not to tell him about her HIV status.

"I haven't been able to tell him yet," said Lucia, even though she is now on antiretrovirals. "I tell him that the pills are for anaemia. She also conceded that they don't always use condoms despite the dangers of re-infection. "I'm too scared to tell him," she said quietly.


Recent MOZAMBIQUE Reports
New campaign brings hope of a better future to OVC,  18/Nov/05
AIDS activists develop successful strategies against stigma,  31/Oct/05
Economic security is a challenge for ARV patients,  28/Jul/05
HIV/AIDS-affected children need more assistance,  16/Jun/05
Workers in the forefront of fight against HIV/AIDS,  2/May/05
Le portail d'informations générales de la Côte d’Ivoire
The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria
Youth against AIDS
Making a Difference for Children Affected by AIDS

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