Despite progress in reducing educational disparities, there remains a wide gap in school attendance between boys and girls in many regions. The HIV/AIDS epidemic is threatening those gains in the hardest-hit countries, and downward trends in education may only exacerbate the problem.
Education is a key defence against the spread of HIV. Providing more educational opportunities for girls and young women is a priority for UNFPA, as well as one of the eight Millennium Development Goals. Promoting girls' and primary and secondary education and women's literacy was also one of main action items identified in a report UNFPA co-authored.
Studies in many countries have linked higher education levels with increased AIDS awareness and knowledge, higher rates of condom use, and greater communication on HIV prevention among partners. Evidence shows that secondary education can significantly reduce girls' vulnerability to HIV, since those years of schooling boost the skills and opportunities they need to achieve greater economic independence. Experience in many countries confirms that school subsidies increase girls' access to education and offer other benefits for girls and their families. They are also easier to monitor than other forms of direct subsidies.
Widespread ignorance about HIV and sex
Social norms impose a dangerous ignorance on girls and young women, who often are expected to know little about sex and sexuality. That lack of knowledge magnifies their risk of HIV infection. In many countries, most young women do not know how to protect themselves against HIV or other sexually transmitted infections, which can increase the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. Knowledge about sex in general is also surprisingly low in many places. A study among rural married women in Uttar Pradesh, India, for example, found that 71 per cent of the women (all of whom had married before puberty) knew nothing about how sex occurs when they began cohabiting with their husbands, and 83 per cent did not know how a woman could become pregnant. Boys and young men often lack accurate knowledge of reproductive health issues as well, which can lead to risk-taking that jeopardizes their own health and that of their partners.
Taking advantage of popular culture to spread the word
Among its many activities to address HIV/AIDS and the gender inequities that fuel the epidemic, UNFPA supports a number of initiatives to educate people who may not be in a classroom.
For instance, UNFPA is helping develop a manual on using soap operas to convey HIV/AIDS prevention messages. The manual is based on a methodology developed by Miguel Sabido of Mexico, in which characters in long-running radio and television soap operas evolve to become role models for adoption of health and social development goals, including gender equality and women's empowerment. This methodology has been shown scientifically to lead to population-wide behavior changes in several countries where it has been used.
UNFPA has also played a role in MTV's Staying Alive Campaign, which has the potential to reach more than 384 million households in 166 countries and territories. UNFPA was a special advisor to the project, making sure that empowerment of women and gender equality and equity are part of the HIV prevention messages.