Faith-based organisations not only provide spiritual guidance to their followers but also are fundamental leaders within their communities, helping to shape attitudes and behaviour. In South Sudan, the Church has been steadfast in providing access to a wide range of social services including health and education. It is also providing HIV treatment and support to people living with HIV in the country.
UNESCO, the South Sudan clergy and missionaries from 10 states across the country came together for a workshop in Juba earlier in the year to prioritise the health and sexuality of their nation’s young people.
Hosted by the Comboni Missionaries of South Sudan, the workshop discussed the “Young People Today” initiative which has seen Health and Education Ministers from Eastern and Southern Africa (ESA) commit to keeping young people’s sexual and reproductive health rights, information and services at the forefront of their national agendas.
With about 30 participants in attendance, UNESCO’s National Programme Officer, Castarina Lado, spoke about the important role religious leaders have in engaging with this initiative.
“The Eastern and Southern Africa Ministerial Commitment will be critical in reducing HIV and STI prevalence, gender based violence and unintended pregnancy among young people over the next five years; the clergy have an important role to play as gatekeepers,” said Lado. “They are many ways to connect with communities, parents and young people, where other institutions simply cannot.”
In South Sudan, young people’s comprehensive knowledge about HIV prevention is still extremely low. There are an estimated 150,000 people living with HIV (UNAIDS) in the country, approximately 18,000 of those people are under the age of 14. Primary school net enrolment is less than half of the young population, at about 40 per cent, while dropout rates range between 16 and 30 per cent. Less than two per cent are enrolled in secondary schools. This means there is a great need to utilise alternative approaches, such as through the Church, to ensure information on sexual health and sexuality are available and accessible. Concepts such as family, parenting, relationships and sexuality were all topics discussed.
Some of the participants who manage schools expressed interest in training their teachers on comprehensive sexuality education in order to better reach out and provide adequate information for young people.
“This is a very important topic,” said participant, Fr. Phillip. “We need to do more in providing knowledge to young people on these issues.”
At the global level, UNESCO is mandated to support the education sector to respond to HIV and AIDS. In South Sudan, UNESCO is strengthening the education sector response by integrating comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) into the education curricula. In order to realise the ESA ministerial commitment, UNESCO will train partners, such as the dioceses, to roll out CSE targeting learners, teachers as well as parents and guardians.
For more information on this UNESCO-supported initiative in Eastern and Southern Africa, see www.youngpeopletoday.net