African educators met in Swaziland this week to discuss strategies for teachers and pupils to cope with the impact of HIV/AIDS, signalling a shift from thinking of the disease as being only a health concern.
"HIV/AIDS is a cross-theme issue - it affects all areas of education in Africa. What is encouraging is the response from communities, civil society and governments," said Dr. Sarah Moten, Division Chief for Education Programmes for the African Bureau of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which convened the conference in Ezulwini.
Moten added: "The impact on the teaching profession has been profound. Our emphasis now is on training - throughout Africa, the teaching institutions are not producing teachers to replace those who die of AIDS," she said.
Two hundred and fifty delegates from 23 African countries and the United States met primarily to assess what effect the Education and Democracy Development Initiative (EDDI), launched by the administration of former US president Bill Clinton, has had on HIV/AIDS in African education, and to plan for EDDI's replacement, the Bush Administration's African Education Initiative (AEI).
Key to EDDI goals was the almost 6,000 scholarships for African girls, a number to be increased substantially under AEI, partly because studies have shown that the pursuit of education postpones sexual activity in girls, and thus delays the potential contraction of HIV.
"Obviously, access to primary and secondary education - which does not yet exist in so many countries across Africa and the developing world - is an elemental and urgent goal. The data indicates that when we see a rise in education levels, including girls, we almost always see a concomitant rise in other development indicators, including political freedoms, income, and access to health care," said US Ambassador to Swaziland James McGee in his remarks to the delegates.
Ravakinaina Ranivoarianja, an educator from Madagascar, reported that the concept of scholarships, as applied in her country, had more to do with mentoring than just cash disbursement, and that AIDS education was benefiting.
"Former scholarship recipients take new girls under their wing - they become guides, sisters and mothers. They help the girls access assistance, and instruct them about life. Some mentors teach their girls personal etiquette. There is much frank sex talk, which is indispensable to survival in the age of AIDS," said Ranivoarianja.
"Scholarship money pays more than just school fees: it takes care of shoes, uniforms, transportation and basic needs," Moten noted.
A projected 4.5 million primary school text books will be published as part of an Africa-US partnership, linking key universities like America's Hampton University with South Africa's Ministry of Education, Albany State in New York with the University of Mali, and the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University with Ethiopia. Links between a further six US and African universities are to be established.
Over a five-year period that began in 2002, 450,000 African teachers were expected to be trained, and 250,000 student scholarships awarded. "These are going to children who would simply do not have any education otherwise, and not all will be girls either. Some boys are considered vulnerable children, too, by which we mean they are extremely poor and/or orphans," said Moten.
Gloria Blackwell, Director of African Education Programmes for the Institute of International Education in Washington D.C., told IRIN: "Partners contribute funding, skills, services and expertise, technology and intellectual property. A synergy results from joint efforts," she said. "There is no question that AIDS in Africa concerns not just educators all over the world - like the university communities in the US that are partnering with African institutions - but all people,"
The delegates' post-conference agenda is to disseminate their shared findings with national education ministries, and pass on developments in mentoring and HIV/AIDS education programmes to other African colleagues.
Dora Kaki Aghodza, training co-coordinator for the World Education NGO in Accra, Ghana, said her efforts to introduce an HIV awareness curriculum in Ghana had begun with an instruction model prepared by the UN Development Programme.
"We showed exactly how educators should respond to AIDS. This opened some eyes of officials who thought AIDS was a health ministry concern. From there we found material support from EDDI, that was unavailable locally, to move our programmes forward," she said.