Christmas Appeal: How to fight the enemy that hides behind ignorance

In the latest in the series on our chosen charities, Robert Verkaik reports from Freetown
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"Put your hand up if you can tell me how you catch Aids," asks the teacher. Three hands shoot up from desks at the front of the class. "From animals," says the first. "Rusty nails," says the second. "It's foreigners who spread it," answers the last.

The battle against ignorance of HIV/Aids in Sierra Leone is being hampered by social misconceptions and taboos that are deeply embedded in African culture. Unless the people can be persuaded to confront the truth and change their sexual practices, health experts believe the country faces the kind of epidemic that has decimated other parts of Africa, such as Swaziland and Botswana.

About 75,000 people have contracted the disease. But the systematic rapes and sexual enslavement that characterised Sierra Leone's 11-year civil war means the true position is probably much worse.

Thousands of sexually abused women were forced to flee from the rebel forces and ended up seeking sanctuary in the Bush. Fighting has displaced many more, and without protection from their communities these women were easy prey to militants from both sides.

The rebel soldiers also injected children with drugs to make them fight. The needles became infected and many children developed HIV/Aids.

Amid the chaos of the war, HIV/Aids has established a worrying foothold. The most recent research shows that the level of HIV infection among 15-to 24-year-olds has now reached 5.1 per cent. It has only been in the past year that the government has begun to react to this potential catastrophe through a series of Aids-awareness programmes.

"Our future is in your hands - keep it Aids free. Abstain and be faithful," is the oblique message accompanying posters that have sprung up in the capital, Freetown, and many of the major roads.

Some of the literature handed out by the National Aids Secretariat, the body charged with heading the campaign to fight the disease, is equally reticent when it comes to making any direct reference to sex.

"It's a real problem," says Gladys Carrol, the manager of a pioneering project to halt the spread of Aids by educating children. It is run by Children in Crisis, one of the three charities being supported by The Independent's Christmas Appeal. "It may still be a taboo to talk about sex but we can't ignore the most important thing that causes Aids.

"The best way to tackle Aids," Mrs Carrol says, "is by taking the message to the schools so that teachers can arm the children with the information they need to protect themselves."

A recent Unicef survey showed that while 72 per cent of the country's adolescents knew about the existence of HIV/Aids only 7.7 per cent showed an adequate understanding of how it is transmitted or avoided. The three 10-year-old boys who answered the teacher's question are typical of children across the country.

Now Children in Crisis has started an outreach programme of teacher training it hopes will confront the myths about Aids while at the same time provide guidance on sex education. Teachers are already working in a suburb of Freetown and in the Kambia region. One of its most successful innovations is the establishment of after-school Aids clubs. Mrs Carrol explains: "They have helped overcome some of the initial opposition from the community, especially among parents who didn't think children should be taught about HIV/Aids."

Children in Crisis and its local partner, Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE), face a massive task. The education gap in Sierra Leone has been exacerbated by the war: almost every child's schooling has been disrupted. Between 1991 and 2002 very few of the country's schools functioned as normal. Those teachers who couldn't escape the war were enlisted as combatants.

The spread of Aids has been helped by the acceptance of polygamy among the ruling elite and the practice of female genital mutilation, which happens to 95 per cent of the country's women, says Theresa Sesay, a former principal of a primary school and one of the founding members of FAWE. "Sexual education is an important part of the teaching - it must go hand in hand with the message about Aids," she insists.

The Aids lessons begin by warning about the risks associated with sex, including pregnancy and venereal disease. Children are told they have the right to refuse sex and they are warned about predatory "sugar daddies" and unwanted attention of other adults.

As Sierra Leone gets back on its feet - it recently heaved itself one notch up from the bottom of the world poverty ladder - the government has embarked on a free-for-all education programme. Children in Crisis aims to train 400 teachers. But this is a fraction of the number they want to reach. Latest figures show that in sub-Saharan Africa 25.8 million people have HIV.

A return visit to the Freetown classroom where the pupils were once so ignorant of the threat of Aids is a rewarding experience. The same children are asked what they now know about Aids after taking part in an HIV/Aids lesson. "I know that it doesn't have a cure," says one of the boys. "How do you think you catch it?" asks the teacher. "Sexual intercourse," comes the unsurprising response, "everyone knows that."

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