Page last updated at 10:35 GMT, Saturday, 23 October 2010 11:35 UK

Explicit sex books 'help drop in Uganda's HIV rate'

By Anna Cavell
BBC News, Kampala

Sub-Saharan Africa has the most people living with HIV in the world but the UN says in recent years new HIV infections have fallen by more than 25%. Uganda's success at cutting the rate could be down to its shocking reading material.

A young Aids patient rests on her bed (file photo)
HIV and Aids affect thousands of young people in Uganda

The book How Kwezi Got Into Trouble has a picture on the cover of a girl sobbing into a tissue at a school desk.

So when I saw it, I thought Kwezi might have got into trouble for handing her homework in late, or perhaps she had been copying somebody else's exam paper.

Then I looked at the text on the back cover and got quite a shock. It read: "At her mother's funeral, Kwezi is raped by her late father's best friend.

"Kwezi has no-one to tell but her mother lying in the grave. Though she gets Aids, Kwezi is determined to let other pupils know how dangerous Aids is."

It is a surprising storyline for a book aimed at eight-to-10-year-olds.

When it comes to tackling HIV, the Ugandan government has never tried to deny it has a problem

But this is a book about Aids in Uganda, the country that used to have the highest rate of infection in the world. Aids is a serious subject here, and children are seriously educated about it.

In another book from the same series, two 12-year-old boys have sex with a girl at the same time.

She is HIV positive, both boys are infected and then die of Aids before they reach adulthood. Now that is quite a cautionary tale for young children.

But when it comes to tackling HIV, the Ugandan government has never tried to deny it has a problem.

As President Museveni put it: "When a lion enters your village, you must raise the alarm loudly."

I came across the books in Kampala when I was shopping with a school teacher from London.

"My God. Look at this," she said, "this is a book about a father who has an affair, he gets HIV so his wife leaves him - but not before they've had an enormous fight and tried to strangle each other."

Sparking debate

I found the books surprising, too, not just for the plot lines, but also the explicitness of the descriptions.

The passage where one character recounts being raped by a taxi driver would make for harrowing reading in an adult book, never mind a children's one.

People living with HIV: 940,000
Children aged 0 to 14 living with HIV: 130,000
Deaths due to Aids: 77,000

But talking to the Ugandan parents in the bookshop I found an altogether different reaction.

I spoke to Juliet, a 33-year-old mother of two who had already bought one of the books for her daughter and had come back to buy more.

Her daughter is 11 years old and apparently very interested in novels, so Juliet thinks these stories are a great way to stimulate discussion about some difficult subjects.

I asked her about some of the passages in the books that had particularly shocked me, and wondered whether she would feel comfortable reading them to her daughter?

"Of course," she replied, "that way she'll be able to protect herself because she'll know everything."

"And were there books like this when you were growing up?" I asked.

"Oh not at all," she said, "back then, your aunties would come to tell you about sex on your wedding night - but now we have HIV, you have to discuss these things."

It is not just the explicit content of the books that is jarring, it is also the contrast to the other HIV education out here

The older generation is not yet convinced, though.

When I approached two sisters who looked to be in their 60s to ask what they thought about the books, they told me there had not been any need for this kind in their day.

First, they said there was no Aids and second - and more importantly - people back then behaved decently.

It was an uncomfortable conversation so, after a short chat about the decaying moral fabric of society, I thanked them and left.

Pragmatic approach

I was not surprised by the reaction of these two ladies. It is not just the explicit content of the books that is jarring, it is also the contrast to the other HIV education out here.

Abstinence poster
Abstinence posters can be found throughout the capital, Kampala

Kampala is littered with posters promoting abstinence. But the billboards with the messages like: "She's saving herself for marriage, what about you?" usually bear the logo of a Christian organisation from abroad.

Uganda's internal strategy seems to be rather more pragmatic.

It is not just government raising awareness among Ugandan youth either. The books are written by local children's authors and produced by a commercial publishing house.

Their use has been encouraged by the government, but it is schools and parents who are buying them.

As much as I believe that informing children is the best way to protect them, I am still struggling to imagine myself reading these books to my goddaughter.

But Uganda can claim to be a success story when it comes to HIV.

It used to have the highest rate of infection in the world, with more than 20% of the population estimated to be carrying the virus. Now that rate is down to 6.7%.

When the lion entered this village, they raised the alarm loudly. Perhaps other villages should take note.

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