Today, on the eve of the 17th International AIDS Conference, more than 33 million people worldwide are living with HIV yet less than half of young people have been educated about HIV prevention.
Young people are at the centre of the global AIDS crisis and are disproportionately affected by the epidemic. Globally, there are about 5.4 million young people living with HIV and forty percent of all new infections last year were amongst young people aged 15 to 24 years old.
However, numerous studies show that with the right information and skills, young people can change their behaviour to reduce the risk of acquiring HIV infection or passing it on to others. In countries where there have been large-scale HIV prevention campaigns, like Haiti, Cameroon and Kenya, young people are far more likely to delay the age when they start sexual relationships and to use condoms in sexual relationships. These shifts in behaviour are leading to real decreases in HIV rates.
The lynchpin to prevention must be education.
In order for HIV prevention to work, young people need to take action to reduce their risk. In turn, this is dependent on an awareness of the risks as well as the skills to negotiate safer sex. Education provides the necessary information and skills.
At a minimum, HIV and AIDS education needs to include information on the HIV virus and its modes of transmission. At some point, HIV and AIDS education must introduce sex and relationships education - simply because over 75% of all HIV infections occur through sexual transmission.
Schools have an important role to play in preparing children and young people for their adult roles and responsibilities. Given that in most countries young people between the ages of five and thirteen spend relatively large amounts of time in school, schools provide a practical means of reaching large numbers of young people with education on HIV and AIDS in ways that are replicable and sustainable.
Moreover, in many countries, young people will have their first sexual experiences while they are enrolled in education, making the school setting even more important as an opportunity to provide education about sexual and reproductive health.
Despite the obvious importance of schools in providing sex, relationships and HIV education, too few young women and men receive anything approaching adequate preparation for adult sexual life. In many HIV and AIDS curricula, discussion of sex is simply avoided or else the focus is placed, often exclusively, upon the potential negative consequences of sex.
The challenges to providing evidence-based and age-appropriate sex, relationships and HIV education are substantial. There is a general misconception that teaching young people about sex will encourage them to start experimenting sexually. This damaging misconception continues despite solid evidence that sex education does not increase sexual experimentation and that in fact, good quality comprehensive sex education can lead to a reduction in teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (including HIV).
Ultimately, governments need to show strong leadership in supporting the introduction of sex, relationships and HIV education, and overcoming community resistance where it exists. This is already happening in a number of countries and there are important lessons to be learnt about how to make sex and HIV education age appropriate and culturally sensitive. Through its participation as a cosponsor of UNAIDS, UNESCO is fully committed to supporting countries as they initiate or strengthen school-based sex, relationships and HIV education.
The First Meeting of Health and Education Ministers to stop HIV in Latin America and the Caribbean, being held in Mexico, this week, is an opportunity for governments to show they are serious about achieving the MDG targets on young people and HIV prevention. At the invitation of the Mexican government, and in partnership with the UN system, the governments of Latin America and the Caribbean will sign an ambitious and wide-ranging declaration on sex education in the region. It now remains for the rest of the world to follow suit.
Too much time has already been lost. Too many promises have not been kept. We have already lost too many people to AIDS, as a result of a preventable infection. Sex education is imperative for HIV prevention to be fully effective; access to it is a moral responsibility and a human right.
Director-General of UNESCO