Getting Education Volunteers on the malaria bandwagon can be a difficult task. They give us a quizzical look before questioning, “Malaria? Isn’t that a health issue? What does that have to do with education? With us?” In truth, malaria has a lot to do with education.
Here in Rwanda, Peace Corps was invited by the Government of Rwanda to work in two sectors- health and education. It’s easy to get Health Volunteers on the bandwagon. Their work in health centers and with Community Health Workers is directly linked to malaria. These are the primary actors in the decentralized implementation of malaria control interventions in the community. Health Volunteers in Rwanda support their activities, including those of malaria prevention and treatment.
Education Volunteers are a bit more difficult to convince of their role. They not so directly involved in malaria activities, making the link between their work and malaria a little more difficult to establish. But, the role of Education Volunteers in malaria control should not be overlooked.
First, malaria causes a significant education burden. Malaria in childhood can lead to impaired cognitive development and is the leading cause of school age absenteeism in Africa. As a result, malaria can greatly hinder a country’s efforts towards development and our ability to achieve the first goal of Peace Corps: to help the people of interested countries meet their need for trained men and women.
Education Volunteers fill a gap that is usually left in malaria prevention education. Health Volunteers and their Community Health Worker counterparts target families, mostly mothers, with key health messages and behaviors. But what messages and behaviors are being promoted to youth in the period before having families? The answer is, not many.
In Rwanda, most students attend boarding schools outside of their communities. As a result, they are away from the influence of their families and responsible for their own choices concerning health. Their schools become their new communities; their peers their sources of influence. What would happen if their environments were malaria-friendly, and their friends informed peer educators?
I would assume that malaria among students in secondary schools would reduce. I would even venture that attendance rates and test scores would increase. Further, empowered youth would return to communities and share their values with families during school breaks, encouraging them to adopt the similar behaviors. The impact would be substantial.
Who will be responsible for engendering change in schools? Education Volunteers work as teachers and are in an ideal position to implement the types of activities that would produce the desired results. What activities am I referring to? Classroom lessons, health clubs, and youth camps are a few examples. I’m sure you can use your imagination to brainstorm more.
Rwanda’s Malaria Volunteers attended a Pre-Service Training for the new group of Education trainees. Our goal was to reject this commonly-held view of the traditional role of Education Volunteers, and inspire a new understanding of the link between education and malaria. Through our presentation, we empowered them to take on a new role in the name of malaria prevention.