Structural and social constraints in the teaching of Life Skills for HIV/AIDS prevention in Malawi primary schools

Authors: Grames Chirwa and Devika Naidoo

 Malawi is a country plagued by social and health problems, such as drug and substance abuse, juvenile delinquency, teenage pregnancies and the HIV/AIDS pandemic. These social and health challenges demand that young people be empowered with appropriate information and skills to enable them to effectively deal with these situations.

In 1999 the Malawian Ministry of Education developed a life skills curriculum that was introduced into Malawian primary schools in 2000. The curriculum was an attempt to empower children in the fight against HIV/AIDS; and as a way to help them deal with other everyday social and health problems.

The aim of this study was to investigate life skills education at four primary schools; and to identify social and contextual factors that influence the implementation of the life skills curriculum. The study addresses the following question: What are different role players’ perceptions, views and experiences with effective delivery of the life skills curriculum?

The study found that most of the teachers did not teach content on sexual practices because they felt that the content was not suitable for younger children. On the other hand, older learners felt shy to express themselves openly on sexual matters in the presence of the opposite sex. In addition, teachers who were infected by HIV/AIDS were reluctant to teach about an issue which affects them personally. Instead, teachers give more attention to examinable subjects such as mathematics and languages and neglected life skills education which was not examinable.

Rural communities felt that life skills education estranged children from their cultural roots by discouraging them from attending initiation schools. Parents in rural communities were also opposed to illustrations on sexual development in the learning material, and discourage learners from reading such content. However, urban schools were more tolerant of HIV/AIDS education, and younger teachers are more willing to teach these topics.

In terms of improving the effectiveness of school-based life skills education in Malawi, the following recommendations are made:

  • That the two-day cascade model of training be reviewed and replaced by a more sustained program in which training is conducted by subject specialists and not school principals.
  • That school based HIV/AIDS education interventions are often not very effective in changing attitudes and practices; and that programs taught by youth organisations may be more effective.
  • That factors such as the interest of the teacher, and their competence in life skills education, be considered before the subject is allocated to them.
  • That attention be given to teachers’ beliefs about whether or not it is appropriate to teach sexual matters to children of the age of 9–10.
  • That HIV/AIDS education be taught to single-sex learner groups.
  • That a more comprehensive approach to HIV/AIDS prevention is needed, including addressing the challenging area of cultural norms and beliefs.

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