"The United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) is committed to working with our partners to support HIV/AIDS awareness among our peacekeeping forces," Assistant Secretary-General Michael Sheehan said during the launch ceremony in Freetown. "It is crucial that peacekeepers have the knowledge to protect themselves and the communities they serve."
The risk of HIV infection increases during times of conflict, and after more than a decade of civil war Sierra Leone is now confronted with an emerging crisis, according to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). Infection rates were fuelled by the widespread rape and sexual exploitation during the social unrest.
The new joint UN action in Sierra Leone is designed to support national efforts to help the recovering country avoid a full-blown AIDS epidemic. The first step will be to determine what peacekeepers know about AIDS and sexually transmitted infections and their potential role in community outreach. They will then be trained in HIV/AIDS prevention, gender awareness and women's rights.
"Peacekeepers are uniquely positioned to educate communities and prevent HIV infection," said the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Sierra Leone, Oluyemi Adeniji. "Armed with knowledge and skills, they can fight the war against HIV/AIDS and reverse the tide of infection."
There are more than 15,000 troops, 250 military observers and around 50 civilian police serving in the UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) from some 37 countries, the largest peacekeeping operation in the world.
The programme will be coordinated by UNFPA, and includes UNAMSIL, DPKO, the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the International Centre for Migration and Health (ICMH).