World AIDS Day: When education helps to save lives

On World AIDS Day, it’s vital to remember that education has a key role to play in reaching the goal of “zero new infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths.”

Every day, about 1,000 children are infected with HIV. Almost all of them contract the virus during their mother’s pregnancy, during childbirth or when they are being breastfed. These infections could be avoided if mothers knew more about how HIV is transmitted.

As we highlighted in the 2011 Education for All Global Monitoring Report, only 59% of mothers with no formal education surveyed in sub-Saharan Africa knew that condoms could help reduce the spread of HIV. Among mothers who had attended secondary school, however, 81% knew how important it is for their partners to use condoms. Similarly, awareness of mother-to-child transmission and the effects of anti-retroviral drugs increases with years of schooling.

Awareness of HIV and AIDS – education provides protection. Percentage of female respondents answering questions on HIV and AIDS awareness, by education, in selected sub-Saharan countries. Source: 2011 GMR

Education can also help reduce adult transmission of HIV by promoting safer sexual behaviour and addressing “the structural factors that facilitate the spread of HIV, including lack of opportunity and gender inequality,” according to UNESCO’s recently published strategy for HIV and AIDS. According to another UNESCO study, sexuality education programs are not only highly effective in reducing the spread of HIV, they can also save society money. Schools are “well-positioned to provide leadership in how to talk to young people about difficult subjects like HIV & AIDS”, as UNESCO experts told Harward EdCast earlier today.

At the same time, HIV and AIDS remain strong barriers to achieving Education for All. As we highlighted in the 2010 EFA Global Monitoring Report, “Reaching the Marginalized”, children with HIV, orphaned children and children from households affected by HIV are among the children at most risk of educational marginalization. The high dropout rates associated with this disease are a major barrier to development. UNESCO’s education response to HIV/AIDS is therefore two-fold: to prevent the spread of HIV through education, and to protect the functions of the education system from the worst effects of the epidemic.

A school in a bag

A project in Malawi has shown that a more flexible approach to teaching methods and better community support could reduce school dropout in high HIV-prevalence areas in sub-Saharan Africa. Researchers found that a “school-in-a-bag” project, which more accurately identified children at risk of dropping out and provided them with a package of support, cut dropout numbers by almost half.

The support measures included a “school buddy” to encourage their learning and a “school-in-a-bag” pack (containing study guides, textbooks, pens and notebooks) so they could keep up with their learning outside the classroom. Weekly youth club meetings were organized where they could do their homework and get further help from youth leaders, who were given a “school-in-a-box” pack to help the children, including books, games, a football and a wind-up radio.

“Our research shows that you can break patterns of educational inequality and disadvantage if you help vulnerable children while they are still at primary school. But it requires an integrated strategy, including better teacher education and national policies”, said Professor Pat Pridmore of the Institute of Education, in London, which led the UK-funded project.



  1. It is completely unfair that someone should suffer due to the ignorance of how AIDS is transmitted. Education about how to promote safer behaviors should be available to everyone.

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