The Linkages Between Education and HIV/AIDS in Girls' Education

Girls’ education has long been recognized as a critical tool in the fight against HIV/AIDS, in the empowerment of women and girls, and in enhancing the health and welfare of families and communities. In a severely AIDS-affected country like Zambia, education and HIV/AIDS are inseparable: the epidemic is causing many girls in poor communities to lose access to education, often compelling them to withdraw from school to look after sick parents or to care for their siblings, or the absenteeism resulting from their care-giving duties leaves them unable to keep up at school. Even those who stay in school face risks related to sexual abuse by teachers themselves or by older men who offer them money in exchange for sex, sometimes as a way to pay for school fees.

The linkages between education and HIV/AIDS are particularly stark for girls in secondary school, where the need for accurate information about HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment is essential to help them make informed decisions, including about their sexual behavior. According to Daphne Chimuka, the national coordinator of the Forum for African Women Educationalists, Zambia national chapter (FAWEZA), education can help equip girls to handle risky situations and understand the consequences, “so they won’t throw away their life over a bottle of Fanta.”

One effort to address the intersections between HIV/AIDS and education in Zambia is called Changes2 – Community Health and Nutrition, Gender and Education Support 2. The program is co-funded by PEPFAR and USAID, and provides an example of “wrap-around” funding that links HIV/AIDS with development.  Changes2 focuses on strengthening pre-service training for primary school teachers about how to teach HIV/AIDS in an age appropriate way, and provides scholarships every year – rising from 3,500 in 2006 to 8,000 in 2009 -- to vulnerable secondary school students, largely girls, along with support and mentoring on HIV/AIDS, health, and other social issues. Most of these girls have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS and live in precarious social and economic conditions, making it virtually impossible for them to remain in school without this support. In school, these girls show remarkable promise and resilience, despite the challenges they face.  One 17-year-old girl, who hopes to become a social worker to help other vulnerable children, described the connections she saw between education, independence, and staying healthy: “One reason I want to complete my education is so I won’t be vulnerable. My two sisters [who are both HIV-positive] didn’t have this opportunity, and they are treated badly by their men, who were why they dropped out of school…I don’t want to depend on anyone. I’ve seen their dependence on their men, and it’s hurt them, physically and emotionally.”

Linkages between education for girls and HIV/AIDS form a crucial element of HIV prevention. Encouraging innovative programs that combine HIV funding with broader development objectives will be key for the success of the Obama administration’s policy on HIV/AIDS, and for the lives of millions of girls in Zambia and beyond.