[:en]HIV and AIDS knowledge among young people in Eastern and Southern Africa (ESA) remains low – below 40%. In order to target these issues effectively, UNESCO, INERELA+ and Save the Children came together for a participatory capacity building workshop last week, 9-11 November 2015 in Johannesburg, South Africa, to open the dialogue for religious leaders, young people and parents on comprehensive sexuality education (CSE).

In order to prevent HIV, it is crucial for young people to not only be targeted with information in school settings but in the community – among parents, community leaders and faith-based institutions. If young people are receiving the same accurate information about their sexuality, it enables them to protect themselves from HIV infections and make other safe decisions so they can live healthier lives.

The workshop has seen collaborative efforts being taken up by communities across 10 different countries in the region, all of which, will support the delivery of comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) – whether you are a school teacher, health worker or religious leader.

Especially in religious communities, the faith-based concepts of sexuality often articulate phobias and stigma that make adolescents more vulnerable to HIV infections. There is a need to foster dialogue in order to support adolescents understand their sexuality needs and rights.

“By the end of the workshop I was informed, educated and, most of all, empowered on matters related to CSE,” said Benson Kanyi Wairimu, a young participant from Kenya. “I got to understand why we young people are of importance in our homes, churches and the community at large. As a young person, I will put into action what I have learnt during the workshop and educate my peers with the correct information,” he continued.

“As parents, we appreciate the content covered, the empowerment, patience and empathy seen this week,” said Mrs. Judith Mthupha, a parent who participated in the workshop. “We are now aware of the responsibility we have as parents in reaching out to young people about comprehensive sexuality education.”

“This week has acted as a foundation for religious leaders. Only now have we begun to develop a positive language to reach young people with accurate information about their sexuality,” said Reverend Phumzile Mabizela, Executive Director of INERELA+, in her closing speech to participants. “Open the doors so that young people can talk to you.”

Last week’s workshop compliments a series of events addressing the importance of religious leaders, parents and young people, who are all taking part in the discussion about delivery of CSE. 

In particular, in September 2015, over 65 religious leaders, youth representatives from UN agencies, government entities and partners from 17 ESA countries gathered in in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania to deliberate on their roles towards fast tracking the end of HIV and AIDS by 2030. The consultative meeting, organized by UNESCO, UNAIDS and INERELA+, resulted in drafting a unique action plan for religious leaders to employ in each of their countries.

A collaborative initiative leveraging this goal took place during the 37th meeting of the UNAIDS programme, supported by the Government of Norway and the Robert Carr Civil Society. On 28 October, the World Young Women’s Association, the World Council of Churches (WCC) with its Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives & Advocacy and the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance (EAA) hosted the panel discussion “Adolescents and Comprehensive Sexuality Education Impacting HIV: Faith Communities taking the agenda forward”.

The collective goal of all these initiatives and many others across the region is to ensure that religious leaders, parents and young people are jointly engaging and championing comprehensive sexuality education. This enables young people to understand their sexual and reproductive health rights, link with services without fear of judgement and act in a safe and responsible manner.

“Investments in life-skills training in schools is not enough. We need to also move out of the schools to engage with religious leaders, parents and the community at large,” concluded Dr. Patricia Machawira, Regional HIV and Health Education Advisor with UNESCO. “This is a realisation we are serious about so that we can complement the work we are doing in schools. These meetings are just the beginning of what will be fruitful partnerships.”[:]