UNHCR to observe World Aids Day with events in five continents
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will mark AIDS Day with a series of events both at the agency's headquarters in Geneva and in many of its nearly 290 offices around the world. The programme includes an information campaign aimed at making UNHCR a more "AIDS-friendly" organisation for both the refugees and its own staff in keeping with the UN Secretary General's call to support those who have contacted the HIV virus.
As AIDS continues to spread around the world, vulnerable populations, including refugees, become increasingly affected. In Africa, for example, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS among the refugee and local host populations oscillates between seven and 25 percent.
Young people between the ages of 12 and 24 represent 35 percent of the world's 21.8 million refugees, with even children increasingly contaminated with the HIV virus.
A study commissioned by UNHCR in 1999 in refugee camps in Tanzania, for example, reported that some youngsters begin to have sex at the age of 10. The study also raised concerns over alarming practices, including multiple partners, unprotected sex, and the exchange of sex for gifts from older males. Without proper measures, the mortality rate is expected to double within years in the refugee camps, affecting increasing numbers of children.
Apart from the young people in general, women and girls are the most susceptible to being contaminated by the disease. Refugee situations are conducive to forced, high-risk sexual behaviour and sexual abuse, including rape. Women and girls frequently find themselves coerced into sex to gain access to basic needs, such as food, shelter, and security. This was demonstrated during the exodus of the Vietnamese "boat people" and the civil war in Liberia, to cite just two cases.
UNHCR has been involved for over ten years in producing guidelines for field activities and materials to encourage prevention and help both in the camps and during emergency situations. The guidelines are based on four principles: promoting prevention, ensuring a safe blood supply, controlling sexually transmitted infections, and providing basic information on HIV/AIDS. Access to voluntary counselling and testing services as well as home-based and community care of people living with AIDS are also promoted.
In addition to its programmes in dozens of countries, UNHCR benefits from funds under the United Nations Foundation (donated by Ted Turner) amounting to $2.2 million, covering 15 projects in 14 countries.
In South Africa, an educational theatre production about AIDS performed in 50 refugee schools. In western Tanzania, more than 50,000 primary students and 4,000 high school students have been educated on HIV/AIDS in refugee camps through lectures, poems and cultural group performances. Hundreds of educators and health care staff have been trained in Namibia, Botswana, Eritrea, Yemen, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal and other countries.
Schoolbooks have been distributed and radio broadcasts used in many countries as potent tools to promote responsible sexual behaviour and destroy some myths about the disease, including widespread misconceptions about the use of condoms. Refugee committees and youth centres have been created in numerous countries, most particularly in Africa.
In the coming years, UNHCR will work to increase both its own and its partners' operational capacity to expand educational and counselling programmes and improve health services for people that have contacted the disease. The agency will also continue to work towards the empowerment of women's rights in the refugee camps so they may better defend themselves against sexual harassment.