Children’s rights experts and activists have welcomed government proposals offer HIV tests in schools. These tests would not be compulsory and would be offered in the first instance at secondary schools only, the basic education department said in a clarifying statement on Monday.
The department’s statement said some hostility had met its recent announcement of HIV counselling and testing at schools, with some media reports suggesting the tests would be compulsory and include primary schools.
The testing would be for secondary school learners, teachers, school support staff and parents and would include screenings for a range of chronic diseases, the department said on Monday.
Children’s rights expert Professor Julia Sloth-Nielsen told the Mail & Guardian that voluntary testing is permitted by legislation. “The Children’s Act makes provision for the lowering of the age of consent for HIV testing to 12 years, provided they fully understand the test’s benefits, risks and social implications,” she said.
Sloth-Nielsen was consulted by the department on its testing plan. A professor at the University of the Western Cape, her appointment to the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child was announced last week.
“So as long as the testing is done confidentially and responsibly then it is fully in line with the intention of the Act,” she said.
Bukelwa Voko, spokesperson for the Alliance for Children’s Entitlement to Social Security (Acess), said the organisation fully supported HIV testing at schools but was concerned about follow-up.
“We recognise the need for testing and agree with it in principle but what happens after the testing?” she told the M&G.
“We would like to see the education department integrate their resources with other ministries, such as health and social development, to provide an all-round support plan for learners who agree to be tested.”
Voko said that there was still stigma around HIV and cautioned that if any testing did take place it should be done with the “utmost confidentiality and discretion”.