Power of Partnerships: Belize

With a prevalence of 2.5% of the population, Belize has the highest rate of HIV in Central America. Young women are most at risk of contracting the virus, with 59% of all cases occurring among females 15-29 years of age. Overall, twenty-one percent of all new HIV infections are among young people 15-24 years of age.

To help prevent HIV transmission among young people in Belize, Episcopal Relief & Development is partnering with the Diocese of Belize to implement an HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention program throughout the Belizean Anglican school system. The program, called “Empowerment for All,” supports ongoing classroom discussion of HIV/AIDS and other activities to raise awareness about how the disease is transmitted.

A central part of the program involves training teachers on ways to incorporate HIV/AIDS prevention into the regular classroom curriculum at all levels of education. The HIV/AIDS prevention curriculum is interactive and adapted to each age and developmental phase, so while younger children are made more aware of their bodies, older children are taught about how HIV is transmitted and how to protect themselves.

The topics of health and sexuality are explored at an age-appropriate level with all classes. The classrooms of the younger students have a dedicated “AIDS Corner” that serves as the focal point for discussions and activities such as poster competitions, quiz contests, skits and puppet shows. Schools also participate in community-wide activities. For example, the St. Andrew’s School in Cayo held an HIV/AIDS awareness parade with participation of 400 students and teachers who marched through the town of San Ignacio to call attention to HIV prevention in Belize.

Because the topic of HIV is still laden with stigma in Belize, the Diocese was challenged with sensitizing the teachers -some of whom were resistant to discussing the topic- on the importance of incorporating the HIV prevention curriculum into their classroom activities. For some of the teachers, this process was extremely personal and involved facing the presence of HIV within their own families.

Anna (name changed), a teacher at an Anglican school, had avoided attending training workshops until the very last seminar was to be conducted. During the final workshop she requested a private conversation with the program trainer and broke down in tears while explaining that her daughter had recently tested positive for HIV. Prior to the workshop, Anna had been avoiding anything to do with HIV and AIDS, including her own daughter. After participating in the workshop, she realized that HIV was not a death sentence and that she had been unnecessarily stigmatizing her daughter.

Another challenge was getting parents up to speed with their children, who were suddenly experts on a topic that in many cases the older generation knew little about. In communities dealing with HIV as well as a range of other issues associated with poverty, this was especially difficult, but the program addressed this by reaching out to parents and explaining the importance of spreading the prevention message. Over time, parents became more receptive to their children becoming a resource for their communities, and were even inspired by HIV prevention outreach that their kids participated in. For example, one activity involved students visiting hospitals and clinics to help children with AIDS, while another project organized students to assemble baskets of toys to deliver to children who were sick.

The program was piloted in five schools in 2007 and has now expanded to all 22 schools in the Anglican system, as well as to eight additional schools outside of this system. Over 5,000 children are being reached each year with intensive HIV prevention messaging. In the next stage, the program will be implemented in more non-Anglican schools as other denominations have already approached the Anglican Church to apply the program in their schools.

“The trainings that we provide to our teachers are not only knowledge filled, but gifts, life altering gifts. It is amazing how much impact a gift can have,” said Michelle Elliot,” program administrator for the Diocese of Belize. “I will never underestimate the power of sharing knowledge, attitudes and behaviors in regards to HIV & AIDS. Such a gift is invaluable and even more appropriate to the era we are living in.”

Thanks to the devotion and hard work of partners and local experts like the Diocese of Belize, Episcopal Relief & Development is able to promote health and fight disease.

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