HIV testing must 'protect learners' rights'

The lack of privacy at schools means that HIV tests on schoolchildren there must not proceed without proper planning and protection of learners’ human rights, activists have warned.

“Most schools in our country do not have a proper life-skills programme, despite government claims to the contrary,” four leading HIV/Aids and education NGOs said in a joint statement.

“Problems of bullying, sexual abuse and substance abuse are widely reported.
In this context, schools may pose serious challenges to privacy, confidentiality and voluntary participation. In a school setting learners reactions will be watched by their peers and educators,” warned the statement.

The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), the Yezingane Network, Equal Education and Section 27 welcomed government’s moves to introduce voluntary tests for secondary school learners, teachers, school support staff and parents. The tests would include screenings for a range of chronic diseases.

“Encouraging HIV testing among young people is necessary,” Tuesday’s statement said. “For over a decade studies have consistently shown rising rates of HIV infection after the age of 14, where HIV prevalence has been known to reach as high as 20% among girls aged 18 to 20.

“This, together with high rates of teenage pregnancy, shows that unprotected sex does take place among youth of school age.”

The organisations said teenagers have the right of access to healthcare services but expressed concern about the difficulties of launching the campaign without “serious preparation”.

“Most schools do not have social workers,” said Yoliswa Dwane, head of Equal Education’s research, policy and communications, in the statement. “Teachers carry the social burden, on top of overloaded teaching responsibilities. To introduce testing into that environment is a risk. Proper counselling, and absolute confidentiality for the learners are prerequisites.”

TAC general secretary Vuyiseka Dubula added that there should be a long-term strategy centred on the psychosocial support needs of children before and after HIV testing, which should safeguard against stigma and discrimination.

“Referral support systems need to be established for children who test HIV-positive so that they don’t drop out of school and that they have proper health care follow up and services. Steps also need to be taken to ensure that those who test negative are encouraged to continue to stay negative,” she said.

The organisations also urged the department of basic education and the department of health to attend to HIV prevention in tandem with testing. Such attnetion should include ensuring condoms at schools and strengthenening life skills programmes.

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