Schools boycott screenings of young HIV sufferers' film

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The Independent Online
EXOTIC flowers fill the screen but the voiceover touches on one of society's biggest taboos: what it's like to live with HIV and Aids.

That may explain why so many schools refused to allow their pupils to attend the London screening of a video made by young people who are either infected with the virus or have a family member who is.

Their response was a blow to Body and Soul, the charity behind the video, which offers support and advice to women and families living with HIV.

But it was not entirely unexpected: the charity's efforts to secure corporate funding for the video had fallen on deaf ears until the Body Shop stepped in at the last moment.

According to Seema Yasmin, a 16-year-old volunteer at Body and Soul, the young people who had spoken on film about the isolation and loneliness of living with a disease so controversial they had to keep it a secret, had been left feeling "frustrated and saddened".

Over 100 London schools were invited to the screening but, says Body and Soul's co-director Paula Harrowing, one third "categorically refused" to attend, saying the subject matter was "inap- propriate", "controversial" or "too difficult". A second showing in Wakefield was attended by only two of 25 schools invited.

What was evident among those who did go, however, was just how powerful such a video could be in raising awareness about HIV and promoting a safe sex message, particularly when endorsed by role models such as Boyzone, Damage, Daniella Nardini and Samantha Janus.

Eight teenagers contacted Body and Soul straight away offering to do voluntary work and a south London teacher said her pupils, who had been reluctant to attend, later told the charity it was the best thing she had ever done with them.

Ms Yasmin said the attitude of her friends was revealing: "When I started as a volunteer, they were ignorant about HIV and said what I was doing was 'disgusting'. It wasn't until we showed the video that people of my own age told me that what I was doing was really good."

It is estimated that there are 10,000 children with HIV in the UK, most of whom were born with the virus. But the greatest number of people now approaching Body and Soul are young women, many of whom have contracted the virus on their first or second sexual experience.

"From what the teachers who volunteer for us and the children who come in say, HIV is barely mentioned at school," says Ms Harrowing. "When it is, it's usually in the same breath as homosexuality, and teenagers then assume that if they are not gay they are probably safe."

Sex education is a compulsory element of the National Curriculum and it must include some reference to HIV, but it is up to individual schools what teaching materials and resources they choose.

This creates a dilemma for teachers. According to one former headmistress: "I had wanted to do more work on Aids but I was overruled by the governing body after two parents complained when their children came home asking if they were HIV positive.

"On the other hand one child told me she was really glad it was being talked about because her aunt had HIV."