Somalia: Somali Women Involved in HIV/AIDS Peer-Education Programme

Somali women are taking the initiative in the fight against AIDS with a programme to educate their peers in this conservative Muslim nation.
An extensive consultative process, conducted by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), led to the development of a women's training manual in the local Somali language, which trained women use to reach other women in their home towns.

"There is a low level of education about HIV/AIDS among Somali women, therefore it is important to find a way to pass on information in a way that they will understand and is appropriate to them," said Aisha Maulana, UNICEF Somalia's HIV/AIDS technical advisor. "The women who talk to them come from their community and understand their needs."

The consultative process began in September 2005 and the programme was introduced in northwestern Somalia's self-declared republic of Somaliland in September 2006, but the rollout, planned for December 2006 in south-central Somalia, was delayed by ongoing insecurity in the region.

Peer educators initially identified key issues placing women at greater risk of HIV, including female genial mutilation, lack of education and poverty. The manual deals with subjects such as sexually transmitted diseases and condom use - condoms are becoming more available in Somalia, but there is very little information on how to use them.

"The level of communication is really innovative ... it is less costly to deliver and only requires the women to attend for two hours a week, so it takes less time away from the home," Maulana said. "It is easy to organise, as it only takes two women to take the information to the people."

The women are trained to work in pairs, each teaching at least 20 people over 20 sessions. "This allows them to feel free to talk, while respecting the traditional values and norms; women are open to talk about sex, sexual rights," Maulana said. "They are not confined by the fact that a man is there."

Using women to reach the wider female community was sensible in Somalia, where insecurity often restricts freedom of movement. "The programme is running well, although in south-central the mobility of the facilitators is limited, as is bringing a large group of people together," Maulana said.

So far, UNICEF has trained 90 women, 30 from each of the country's three regions - Somaliland in the northwest, Puntland in the northeast, and south-central Somalia. Sessions are also run in camps for internally displaced persons, where an estimated 400,000 people are housed.

UNAIDS estimates Somalia's HIV prevalence at 0.9 percent, which is low by regional standards, but have warned that once the rate exceeds one percent, it can double or triple in the space of just two or three years.