As the world continues to grapple with the search for a permanent cure for the HIV and AIDS pandemic, the government, public and private institutions and NGOs in Ghana have intensified efforts to encourage and motivate positive behavioural change particularly among the youth.
One area of focus is the education sector, which is scaling up the HIV sensitization and intervention in the Upper Primary, Junior High and Senior High Schools in line with the Ghana Poverty Reduction Strategy, GPRS.
At the Senior High level, the Ministry of Education has integrated environmental awareness and sensitization programmes into HIV interventions. It has been implementing this under the Development of Senior Secondary Education Project (DSSEP) also known as Education III.
The objective of DSSEP is to provide support for HIV and environmental awareness and sensitization. This involves the upgrading of all teaching and learning materials, conducting workshops for teachers and students and producing I.E&C materials for sensitization and awareness creation.
It will also identify HIV and AIDS and environmental awareness focal persons within the teacher and student populations to co-ordinate school based HIV and AIDS and environmental awareness activities.
In other words, the project hopes to enhance HIV and AIDS and environmental protection awareness and integrate preventive measures into school life.
Since the Ministry of Education deals mainly with the youth from primary to tertiary levels, programmes within the sector need to be structured with the objective of equipping and empowering young people with behaviour change skills.
It is against this background that one commends the Ministry of Education, for contracting Philip Foundation Programme, a local firm, to produce HIV and AIDS and environmental awareness and sensitization training manuals and posters and use the same to train focal persons and peer educators in Senior High Schools. The project is being implemented with funding from the African Development Fund.
The Government and the Ministry of Education deserve a pat on the back for giving practical meaning to HIV and AIDS prevention and environmental protection, especially focusing on the youth as change agents.
It is worth noting that apart from producing the training manuals, Philip Foundation Programme under the project is expected to train 50 facilitators, 670 focal persons and more than 2,500 peer educators from the Senior High Schools.
The use of the local firm is encouraging, in the sense that it will help empower Ghanaian entrepreneurs to grow the local economy.
The training manual on HIV and AIDS and environmental awareness and sensitization contains topics like values and attitudes, gender and stereotypes, personal hygiene, sanitation and hygiene in schools, adolescent growth and development and sexually transmitted Infections (STI).
The rest are basic facts about the Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (HIV and AIDS), personalising risk, self esteem, stigma and discrimination, alcohol and drug abuse, environmental degradation, peer education session and data collection tools among others.
The manual takes the reader through the advent of HIV and AIDS and adds a new dimension to the Sexual Reproductive Health, (SRH) challenges facing the youth including students of Senior High Schools in Ghana. It also highlights environmental issues relating to poor sanitation, pollution and forest degradation which have also become a major developmental concern in Ghana in recent times.
It is unfortunate that despite efforts to educate people and provide information on HIV and the need to keep the environment clean, there still exists a gap between knowledge and practice.
There is no doubt that topics in the manual when effectively canvassed in the schools can help equip teachers and students, thereby, motivating behavioural change.
The Ministry of Education and Ghana Education Service have acknowledged the role teachers and young people can play to make a difference in schools and communities. When equipped with the relevant information on how to lead the fight against HIV and AIDS as well as environmental degradation and sanitation, young people will be a force to reckon with.
It is in this regard that under the Development of Senior Secondary Education Project (DSSEP), the Ministry of Education is focusing on building capacity of teachers and students to serve as change agents.
So far, the training of 50 facilitators and more than 650 focal persons in Senior High Schools and District Education Officers on HIV and AIDs and environmental awareness and sensitization has been well executed.
The beneficiaries are being tasked to organise peer education sessions in their respective schools to motivate behaviour change to reduce HIV infection and encourage the observance of environmental protection and basic hygiene techniques.
It is gratifying that participants have indicated their commitment to educate their peers and support the students to carry out peer education sessions to motivate behaviour change.
One hopes that the skillful manner in which the facilitators and focal persons training were conducted, the peer education training for students will see the same level of enthusiasm to achieve the desired impact.
At one of the training sessions at Bunso in the Eastern Region, participants expressed the view that teachers and parents ought to get to the level where they will understand young people in order to give them the needed support to motivate behaviour change.
They pointed out that young people are under a lot of pressure to bow to peer influence. For instance, some get into certain practices because of negative peer influence, while for others it may be due to parental neglect.
Another worrying revelation at the training session was that, some young ladies were said to have been influenced to sell their menstrual pads during menstruation to some people for ocultic purposes.
These revelations just show the pressure the youth are under, and therefore need the support of the elderly in society to unleash the steam.
Another issue the participants expressed concern about was the fact that punishment should not generally be seen as the first option in correcting students who misbehave in school.
In their view, counseling should be given priority, so that erring students will appreciate the implications of their actions, and what options they have in dealing with the problem.
One could not agree more with a participant who remarked that “avenues should therefore be created in schools where students will be motivated to confide in trained focal persons who will be open and frank with the youth particularly on issues about reproductive health”.
As the organizers prepare for the next stage of the DSSEP for students in public Senior High schools, it is important for the Ministry of Education to also consider especially students in the private schools.
It is no secret that the private Senior High Schools have a sizeable number of young people, especially those from wealthy families.
Some of these students do indulge in risky and care-free lifestyles like drinking, using illicit drugs and engaging in casual and unprotected sex, all of which have the tendency to predispose them to the dangers of contracting HIV.
The Ministry of Education and Ghana Education Service should therefore source more funds for the implementing firm to extend the programmes to private senior high schools as well.
There is no doubt that, organising similar training sessions for teachers and students from private Senior High Schools and technical institutions will motivate more teachers and students to embrace and champion HIV prevention as well as environmental awareness and sensitization in schools.
The various developmental challenges facing the country, especially HIV and AIDS prevention as well as motivating the youth to adopt responsible environmental practices can be realized if together as a people we adopt positive behaviours.
The journey to motivate behavior change will not be an easy one. But with determination and unity of purpose, Ghana will continue to inch towards a well informed society that will strictly adhere to HIV prevention measures and also observe basic environmental hygiene for a healthy nation.