New guidance to Zambian schools affected by HIV/AIDS

By Jennifer Brookland

January 8, 2014

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A five-year strategy will get HIV/AIDS guidance and counseling services to children in Zambian schools.

Orphans and vulnerable children in Zambia will have more in-school support in the coming years after the Ministry of Education approved a five-year guidance and counseling strategy.

The strategy is meant to provide teachers and children facing the challenges of living with or losing relatives to HIV and AIDS with resources, skills and comfort.

Schools are beginning to implement the strategy, developed with the support of Creative Associates International’s Read to Succeed Program (RTS) and funded in part by the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

“It is important because the teacher is the closest person to the learners, with a better understanding about HIV/AIDS and life skills,” says Tassew Mekuria, Director of Creative’s Zambia program. “For students to have a resource person just next door to access this information and get help is very important. The RTS model ensures that schools become centers of care and support which are lacking in most home settings.”

The strategy aligns with the Ministry of Education, Science, Vocational Training and Early Education’s Guidance and Counseling Handbook, which instructs teacher training institutions on providing those services.

In fact, the Ministry has prioritized taking the RTS model to additional provinces where the program is not operational in an effort to train guidance and counseling teachers—one from every school where Creative’s program is not already in place.

The official launch of the strategy has also been made a national priority for 2014, along with formalizing guidance and counseling positions at district and school levels, and ensuring schools dedicate time on a regular basis to providing these services to students.

The prevalence of HIV among adults in Zambia is 14.3 percent, according to UNICEF, and infection rates have plummeted in the past decade: The Lusaka Times reports they have dropped 58 percent since 2001.

But encouraging drops in prevalence belie the great needs of the country’s young. More than half a million primary school children are orphans or vulnerable children, according to Mekuria. They also suffer from spotty education when HIV positive teachers are unable to report to their classrooms.

The new guidance and counseling strategy targets students and teachers both, and lays out a matrix of activities, materials, timelines and benchmarks for measuring success. It will help institutionalize the position of guidance counselors nationwide, and provide the substance for classes on life skills and HIV prevention.

“In order to avoid more individuals being affected by HIV/AIDS, education is particularly important,” says Mekuria.

The Read to Succeed Program focuses on a phonics-based approach to literacy, as well as using schools as a platform for HIV/AIDS education, life skills and psychosocial support for those affected.

“Instead of having guidance and counseling officers at the district and provincial level where students might not access them, having that resource at the school level where they go to play and learn formally and informally is very important,” Mekuria says.

Read to Succeed program has already worked in schools to train guidance and counseling teachers, and distributed nearly 2,500 copies of supplemental education materials in six Zambian provinces.

The program developed age-specific and socially-relevant messages about HIV prevention that it disseminated to 53,096 students and teachers. Within each school, it trained 10 “agents of change” to lead peer group discussions with 20 friends about related issues—sometimes too sensitive to discuss outside such a supportive environment.

Almost 14,000 of these students aged 15 or older also received sexual reproductive health messages, such as information on the key drivers of HIV and behaviors they can employ to stay safe.

The program has already worked at the national level as well, developing implementation strategies for the education sector’s HIV/AIDS workplace policy, drafting and harmonizing school health policies.

Though the Ministry of Education has offices for guidance and counseling, and there are Principal and Senior Guidance, Counseling and Education officers at the national and provincial levels, similar supporting positions don’t exist at the district level. The new strategy will therefore increase the government’s effectiveness in pushing officials at the district and school levels to put programs in place.

A year in the making, the strategy is the product of conversations with parents, teachers and community members as well as NGOs and international bodies such as the United Nations. Mekuria hopes that this collaborative approach will make the strategy sustainable.

“Local initiatives are powerful,” he says, “because people help support that which they create.”