HIV/Aids takes our matrics

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Despite the fact that many South African children have access to primary school, the impact of the HIV/Aids pandemic on education means that few will make it as far as matric.

In South Africa, HIV/Aids represents the largest single threat to equal access to education, says Prof Relebohile Moletsane, Deputy Dean of Postgraduate Studies in the College of Education, University of KwaZulu-Natal.

In Marking Matric, a report recently released by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), Prof Moletsane explains how school drop-out rates are steadily on the rise as families are increasingly affected by the HIV/Aids pandemic.

While many children do have access to primary school, few of them will reach and pass matric.

Young people of school-going age are particularly susceptible to the disease, as a joint 2003 report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and Aids (UNAIDS) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) concluded: over 50% of new HIV infections occur among the 15 to 24-year-olds.

Girls bear the brunt
Within the 15- to 24-year-old age group, girls – and black young women above all – are disproportionately affected. For example, emerging research data from KwaZulu-Natal estimates that among 15- to 19-year-olds, the vast majority of whom are in school, 15.64% of black girls are likely to be HIV-positive compared to only 2.58% of black boys.

By comparison, the infection figures are 1.25% for white girls and 0.26% for white boys; and 1.29% and 0.26% for Indian girls and boys, respectively.

In addition, schools are regarded as a high-risk environment for HIV infection. Evidence suggests that a third of all HIV infections occur during the school years.

One reason identified for this is the unequal gender relations among teenagers, which are often defined by sexual violence towards girls.

HIV/Aids and poverty a double blow to learners
Moletsane points out that in poverty-stricken communities, in addition to the high HIV infection rate among youth of school-going age, the pandemic has several other negative effects on access to and success in school.

In poor households affected by HIV/Aids, the few available material resources are diverted away from school fees and uniforms, and towards medical and nutritional care for increasingly ill family members.

Many school-goers, especially girls, take on the role of care-givers to ill adults or to younger siblings, a burden that often makes it difficult or impossible to succeed at school, or even to attend classes.

To access basic resources, many children are forced to seek work. However, most are unskilled and often end up in positions that put them at risk for physical, sexual and emotional abuse, and possibly HIV infection from adults. For example, many young people, again usually girls, turn to prostitution as a source of income.

HIV impact missed by educators
Moletsane feels that previously the impact of HIV/Aids has not been taken into account by educators as one of the factors that pulls down South Africa’s matric pass rate.

The impact of HIV/Aids on education should be placed at the top of the schooling agenda, and educators need to develop new programmes to address the needs of infected and affected learners, says Moletsane.

- (Health24, May 2006)

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