Students of No.1High School in Shahe City, Hebei Province, show the red-ribbon badges they have made, the international symbol of commitment to the fight against HIV/AIDS
While most schoolgirls have secrets, Xiao Ping’s (not her real name) is a little different. Every day, without fail, she finds a quiet corner to take a dose of medication, hiding her actions away from others, not wanting to be asked questions. She is HIV positive and on antiretroviral treatment for the rest of her life.
"My close friends still play with me but some classmates and villagers shun me. The discrimination [against people living with HIV/AIDS] is still deep in many people’s minds here," said the 12-year-old, who lives in a remote mountain village in Yingjiang County, Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture in southwest China’s Yunnan Province.
"Three years ago, I learned that I had got the virus from my mom, who died of AIDS," she said. "At that time, I knew nothing about AIDS. However, I got treatment in time and have since learned more about AIDS from my doctor and teachers."
Xiao Ping’s family is not the only case in her village, close to the China-Myanmar border, though it is hard to imagine this beautiful place could ever be subject to the harsh realities of drug abuse and HIV/AIDS. The prefecture has been designated a high-risk area for HIV/AIDS.
To tackle the problem, Yingjiang, a county in the prefecture, introduced sex education and classes on HIV/AIDS prevention in six schools in 2012. Today, the classes have been rolled out in 200 primary and secondary schools across the county.
They are sponsored by the AIDS Prevention Education Project for Chinese Youth (APEPCY), a non-profit organization. It runs educational activities in schools using a combination of books, videos and lectures, while exploring other innovative educational models to raise young people’s awareness about AIDS and sexual health.
"It is crucial to help students and their parents understand how AIDS transmits and how to protect themselves," said Yang Chunyan, head of APEPCY’s workstation in Yingjiang. "But the most important thing is to eliminate the discrimination against the infected."
Nie Yongxian is among the first batch of teachers in Yingjiang to receive training in AIDS prevention and sex education teaching.
"Students urgently need to know about the dangers of HIV/AIDS and how to take precautions against the disease," said the teacher from Yingjiang No.3 Junior Middle School. Since the region faces a serious drug problem and a potential HIV/AIDS epidemic, she said it is also important to tell students of the dangers of drugs abuse, especially the new drugs being circulated, and urge them to be on their guard.
Sex education begins from the first grade, where it mainly deals with physical hygiene. Second graders learn more about sexual maturity as well as concepts of relationships and marriage, Nie added.
"I think it is urgent and necessary to tell them more about pregnancy and contraception," she said.
To 16-year-old Luo Tong, the classes given in the specially designated classroom are absorbing. "I was taught how to avoid unintended pregnancy and how to protect myself from sexual harassment," she told ChinAfrica. "[The lessons] include topics related to puberty, which my parents are too shy to discuss with me."
Nie’s work goes beyond the classroom. She also gives talks on HIV/AIDS prevention and control and sex education to villagers in Yingjiang. She thinks the talks are another way of fostering greater awareness of the disease and the channels through which the infection can occur. They also help fight discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS.
Guo Dinglian, a village mother with three children, attends the lectures three times a month.
"Some of the cases of HIV infection among drug abusers happened around us. So my priority is to take care of my family and educate my kids," she said.
Thanks to the timely counseling provided by the classes, Xiao Ping is able to understand her HIV positive status and handle her negative feelings better.
New high-risk group
Sex education is key to prevention and control of AIDS, says Zhang Yinjun, co-founder and Managing Director of APEPCY. "Sex education does not receive adequate attention and resources as traditionally, sex has been a taboo subject in China," Zhang said. "One is not supposed to talk about it openly, especially with children."
She is passionate about the work to arrest the spread of HIV/AIDS among young people through sex education. However, when the project was in its infancy, many people thought she was mad because she dealt with taboo topics every day. Yet, she soldiered on. "I just know that what I am doing is right," she said.
In an alarming trend, HIV/AIDS among young people is on the rise nationwide.
Statistics from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show infections among people aged 15-24 rose by about 14 percent at an average annual rate from 2011 to 2015. Teenagers - who are prone to becoming sexually active as well as be tempted by drugs - are the new high-risk group.
China reported 575,000 HIV-positive cases at the end of October 2015. The CDC estimates the number of people living with HIV/AIDS in China could account for as much as 0.06 percent of the total population.
In the first 10 months last year, the estimated number of new infections on the Chinese mainland among people aged 15-24 exceeded 14,000. Roughly, 82 percent of the infections resulted from acts of homosexuality.
The data suggests sexual transmission was the main channel for the spread of the HIV, overtaking drug use and contaminated blood transfusions.
Zhang says more young people are being infected due to the lack of sound sex education and feels schools should share the burden of spreading lessons in sex education with parents.
Zhang Liming, Deputy Director of Yingjiang County Education Bureau, said AIDS prevention and sex education have been given more priority in the local school curriculum. In addition, the schools are partnering with NGOs to train more teachers to take such classes.
Gou Ping, a psychology professor at Chengdu University in southwest China’s Sichuan Province, agrees sex education is vital. "It is crucial [for Chinese youth] to understand the importance of safe sex from an early age," Gou said. "With proper sex education, they will learn how to protect themselves and their partners during sex, and the HIV/AIDS prevention plan will fall into place."
A role model
Over the past decade, APEPCY has been endeavoring to introduce AIDS prevention methods and sex education into the nation’s education system by organizing classes from kindergartens to universities.
Since it was started in 2006, APEPCY has sponsored 681 designated classrooms for AIDS prevention initiatives nationwide. It has also built up 11 bases and nine branches across the country, which offer professional training, compile textbooks, and support teaching and research activities.
Chen Zhongdan, UNAIDS strategic information adviser, speaks highly of APEPCY.
"We are planning to introduce APEPCY’s experience to the rest of the country and other countries as Yingjiang’s solution has been effective," he said.
Zhang Yinjun has further plans. "I hope to make better use of domestic and international resources to make AIDS prevention and sex education a public welfare program for everyone and ultimately realize the ‘Zero AIDS’ goal," she said.
(Xiao Ping’s real name has been withheld to protect her identity)