By Peroshni Govender
Thursday, June 13, 2002
South Africa's teachers, most of whom are women, are among the casualties of the country's AIDS crisis. After years of denying the problem, the government now says it's time to intervene.
JOHANNESBURG (WOMENSENEWS)--As the continent's epicenter of soaring HIV infections, South Africa faces the daunting prospect of losing its teachers, a profession dominated by women, to the deadly disease.
Now South Africa's education minister, alarmed by a projected shortage of teachers in the country, says the government must take a proactive role in ensuring that fewer instructors are lost to AIDS. Some 12 percent of the country's teachers are infected with HIV, according to the World Bank.
"We have recognized that preventing the spread of HIV will not be achieved only by teaching life skills in the classroom," said Education Minister Kader Asmal. "We have to join hands as an education coalition to intensify our fight against the pandemic."
Asmal's statement, made June 1 at the end of a three-day conference on the issue in Johannesburg, was a notable shift for the South African government, which only now is acknowledging AIDS deaths among educators and its effects on students to be a serious problem.
In KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa's largest and mostly rural province on the country's east coast where one in four people carry the virus, 70,000 new teachers will be needed by 2010 to replace sick and dying instructors, predicts Peter Badcock-Walters, a research associate for health and economics at the University of Natal's AIDS research division.
Badcock-Walters' study, based on statistics from prenatal clinics in 2000, indicates that 36 percent of the region's pregnant women are HIV-positive, with certain rural clinics in the province's northern regions seeing their HIV prevalence as high as 60 percent.
"There are no reliable national statistics but we believe the situation is dismal" in the province, said Glenn Abrahams, chairman of the country's teacher regulatory body, the South African Council of Educators.
Asmal said the education department is considering taking a holistic approach to AIDS in South Africa's schools: providing support structures for those infected and affected, preventative education and peer counseling for students. Up to now, in line with government policy, the education department has focused on educating students about how to prevent AIDS and advocating safe sex.
The new strategy, discussed at the conference, reflects the first time that the government and the country's leading teacher organization, the South African Democratic Teachers' Union, have seen eye-to-eye on AIDS.
"We are very optimistic . . . because it breaks the government's years of denying that HIV is a problem," said Hassen Lorgat, the national spokesperson for the teacher's union.
Lorgat said the union looked forward to working with the education department to provide a sustainable assistance network for people infected and affected by the disease. He said that by working with the government, the union hoped to create an environment of trust, support and solidarity for people who choose to disclose their status.
But right now, teachers' reluctance to disclose their HIV status is a major obstacle to outreach efforts, Abrahams said.
Among the country's 350,000 educators, only one educator has made her HIV status public and that admission has made her life far from easy.
When Sbongile Mkhize, 43, from rural KwaZulu-Natal, disclosed her HIV infection to her principal in 2000, she expected the school to help her cope with the disease's effects.
She said it was the worst choice she's ever made. Disclosure in KwaZulu-Natal, where literacy rates are exceptionally low, poverty common and HIV awareness almost non-existent in some areas, comes at a price.
Mkhize had to endure assaults by her truck-driver husband, who infected her. And she was stigmatized by her community and colleagues.
"After I told the principal, he called a meeting with the staff and members of the school governing body," Mkhize recalls. "There parents told me that they don't want me at the school--that I will infect other learners and teachers."
Mkhize was then told to report to the district education manager, about 100 kilometers from her home.
"On the way, I collapsed and had to be hospitalized," she says. "Because I was neither at school, nor with the district manager, I was fired for absenteeism."
Intervention from the teachers' union forced the school to reinstate Mkhize, but almost two years later, she is still harassed.
"The principal and the governing body have accused me of lying; they say I am too fat to be HIV positive," she says.
Mlu Ntombela, a union official in northern KwaZulu-Natal, said the union will not back down because Mkhize is healthy enough to teach.
"The provincial officials have said that Mkhize can be medically boarded but we are against this," he said. "She is a dedicated teacher who wants to work. Why must she be forced out of a job?"
Teachers are not the only ones education officials need to reach. Students orphaned by the disease or who must care for sick parents say schools are not equipped to handle their needs.
In his study, Badcock-Walters said that of the 2 million children expected to be orphaned nationally by AIDS in the next decade, 500,000 will be in KwaZulu-Natal. His report also alleged that "sick and dying parents also never bother enrolling their children at school."
At the outset of the meeting, children affected by the disease spoke about their experiences: how because of sick parents, they are unable to complete homework, let alone sleep; how being orphaned by the killer disease makes it impossible for them to pay school fees; how teachers and other learners don't understand their home situation and berate them.
"My mother is very sick. After school, I have to clean the house and take care of my baby brother and my mother. Sometimes I don't get enough sleep and fall off to sleep in class. The other children laugh at me and teachers scold me for not paying attention. But my thoughts are always with my brother and mother because they have AIDS," said a 12-year-old girl from Limpopo Province, north of Johannesburg, whom officials would not identify out of concern for her welfare.
Asmal said the children's concerns should be addressed. "Their accounts are heartbreaking," he said.
Asmal has not issued a time frame for the new strategy, but he pledged to ensure the concerns raised at the conference "are translated into concrete actions." He also vowed to meet with the ministers of health and social development to develop an integrated approach to the disease.
Peroshni Govender is an education reporter at The Star, Africa's leading daily newspaper.
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