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Profiles: Americans at UNESCO

Ramya Vivekanandan, Programme Specialist in the Section of Education and HIV & AIDS

Ramya Vivekanandan with other UNESCO Young Professionals at the UNESCO office in Rabat, Morocco (Ramya Vivekanandan image)

Ramya Vivekanandan (at far left) with other UNESCO Young Professionals at the UNESCO office in Rabat, Morocco (Ramya Vivekanandan image)

Ramya working with a mother’s association in Fria, Guinea (Ramya Vivekanandan image)

Ramya working with a mother’s association in Fria, Guinea (Ramya Vivekanandan image)

Ramya Vivekanandan works in UNESCO's Education Sector as a Programme Specialist in the Section of Education and HIV & AIDS. A strong advocate of education and its key role in the quest for social justice, she works at the policy level in order to sustain this effort in UNESCO's work on the ground. This month, Ramya sat down with us to share her insights and to give us a brief look into her busy, fascinating life at UNESCO.

U.S. Mission: Tell us something about your background: where you are from, your educational background, what you were doing prior to joining UNESCO, etc.

RV: I was born in India, but I came to the United States when I was two years old. I grew up outside of Dallas, Texas and did an undergraduate degree in international affairs at The George Washington University.  Afterwards, I worked for the International Law Institute in Washington, DC, a non-profit that provides training for international civil servants, and then I got my Master's in International Education Policy from Harvard University's Graduate School of Education.

After that, I worked in different parts of Sub-Saharan Africa for two years, first in Senegal with a girls' education project funded by USAID. Following this, I did a fellowship program which first took me to Malawi, where I worked on a large education project focused on teacher training and expanding innovations developed in a pilot involving village-based schools, and then to Guinea, where I served as a Technical Advisor within the Ministry of Pre-University and Civic Education's National Equity Committee, which was focused on issues of girls' and rural children's education. I later worked for Africare in Washington D.C. as a Program Manager for the Southern Africa portfolio of projects. 

After being accepted to the UNESCO Young Professionals Program, I moved to Paris and began working for UNESCO in April 2006. Until April 2010, I was working in the Section for Teacher Education on the Teacher Training Initiative for Sub-Saharan Africa (TTISSA).

What motivated your desire to work in international development?

I think it was mostly the effects of being from India. I remember going back to visit family there as a child and being very personally moved by the poverty and injustice I saw vis-à-vis the opportunities that I myself had growing up. I therefore knew from a young age that I wanted to work in development. I chose to focus on education because of my strong conviction that it is the basis for everything else - education gives people the tools they need to change their lives and to change the future.

What got you interested in HIV/AIDS?

I got particularly interested in it when I was working in Malawi, which has a generalized HIV epidemic. This means that many people in the country are infected or affected, and seeing how deeply it affects communities, young people and teachers, particularly in the small town in which I was living and working, made a big impact on my life. I felt personally committed to working in this area at some point in my career.

What does HIV/AIDS education involve?

The UN responds to HIV and AIDS through UNAIDS, which is the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS. UNAIDS is composed of ten co-sponsoring agencies, of which UNESCO is one of the founding agencies. UNESCO works with others to mainstream HIV and AIDS in education and to advocate for comprehensive education sector responses to the epidemic.

I work specifically on the UNAIDS Global Initiative on Education and HIV & AIDS (EDUCAIDS), as well as providing general support to country implementation.  EDUCAIDS was launched in 2004 and is not a project per se but rather a framework for how countries should respond comprehensively to the epidemic through the education sector. I work on developing tools, materials and practical guidelines to support countries in integrating HIV and AIDS in education and to support our colleagues in Field Offices who are working directly with Ministries of Education in this area.

I've also been involved in documenting ongoing activities and processes in different countries through what we call "Country Snapshots."  Finally, within our Section, I serve as the Focal Point for issues of school health and health promotion. UNESCO is part of an inter-agency initiative called Focusing Resources on Effective School Health, or FRESH. UNESCO may start engaging more around issues of health promotion, and so it has been very interesting to work in this area and to support figuring out our future orientations.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first reported cases of HIV/AIDS in the United States. Looking ahead, what are some of the challenges that still remain in HIV/AIDS education?

From my perspective, the biggest challenge for us is making the argument that the education sector has a role to play in the response to the epidemic. Generally speaking, the response tends to be very much focused on by the health sector and issues around care, support and treatment.  People tend to believe that education as it happens in the formal school system doesn't produce a change in the behavior of young people and thus has no role to play. However, we believe strongly that there needs to be a multisectoral response, including a strong role for the education sector since it plays a key role in prevention. 

The 2010 UNAIDS Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic, which provides the latest official data,  showed a decrease in global rates of HIV prevalence, especially among young people. In parallel, there is an increasing awareness of HIV and AIDS and the need for protection among young people.  But we need to show the direct connection between these two phenomena.  Making the case for attribution is difficult, so I would say that this is the biggest challenge for us in our work.

What would you like Americans to know about UNESCO?

That it is not just about World Heritage Sites, and that we're not UNICEF. [Laughs] There are five different sectors of UNESCO doing important work, and while it is important that UNICEF or UNFPA builds schools and trains teachers, we also need work at the upstream level which addresses policy and systemic issues. The same goes for research, which is a crucial domain as well. People, particularly those working in development, often have the idea that if we are not training this many teachers or doing this many things on the ground that we are not being effective, but we need to have a more holistic view of what it means to create change across all parts of the spectrum.

Why should Americans support UNESCO?

Americans should support UNESCO because the U.S. has a key role to play in terms of sharing its experiences and advancing UNESCO's role in facilitating the exchange of knowledge and information. At the same time, the U.S. has a lot to learn from other countries, and UNESCO provides a key forum for that. Last year, U.S. Secretary of State Arne Duncan visited UNESCO and spoke humbly and candidly about the challenges faced by the U.S. in terms of education, and the fact that the U.S. has a lot to learn from other countries. We constantly hear about other countries which are outperforming the U.S. in international comparative assessments of education, and we would do well to study what they have done and to strive to learn from them. The same holds true for the other domains in which UNESCO works. The U.S. has a lot to contribute to the international community in terms of the sciences, culture, communication and information and equally has a lot to learn.