19 February 2013

Uganda: Sacked, Dying for Being HIV-Positive

Florence Najjumba, a primary school teacher in Masaka district tested HIV-positive in 2008 and went public with her status.

The result was much worse, and offers a glimpse into what social stigma can do to an HIV-positive person. By going public, Najjumba had hoped she would be supported by the education sector's HIV/Aids workplace policy.

The framers of the policy in 2006, the Uganda Aids Commission and the ministry of Education, sought to, among others, eliminate all forms of stigma and discrimination against people with HIV. But in 2010, Najjumba's employers, the Masaka municipal council Education department, deleted her from the payroll on learning that she was bedridden.

With no more pay cheques coming, she was condemned to death. She was confined to her house in the teachers' quarters at the Blessed Sacrament primary school, Kimaanya, where she taught the infant section. Eighteen months later, the Uganda National Teachers' Union (UNATU) took up her case with the authorities. On July 7, 2011, the Southern region UNATU Chairperson, John Lugaaju, wrote to Town Clerk Masaka Johnson Munono Baryantuma.

"Najjumba is dully appointed and confirmed [as a grade three] teacher who fell sick and was hospitalized.... for no good reason, her name was scrapped off the payroll. Her life stands by the thread, she cannot fend for herself," UNATU's letter to the town clerk reads in part.

The letter was simply shelved.

With her health deteriorating, and no response from her employers, UNATU contacted the town clerk again, but no action had been taken. The town clerk then referred the matter to Municipal Personnel Officer Angel Nakalyoowa.

"This is a genuine claim. As earlier agreed, please re-instate this teacher on the payroll because she needs money to assist her in her sickness," Baryantuma wrote to the personnel officer on October 25, 2012. Nakalyoowa responded on October 30, saying Najjumba's account could not be reactivated without her bank statements.

Acting on this requirement, UNATU's southern region secretary for Planning and Organizing, Moses Nsereko, approached Stanbic bank Masaka branch, but without powers of attorney, the bank declined to give him Najjumba's bank statement.

"We tried to explain to the bank that she couldn't come to the bank because she was frail but the bank disregarded our explanation," Nsereko told The Observer.

Late last year, Najjumba was thrown out of her house at Kumbu housing estate and was taken to her mother Geraldine Kire's residence at Bisanje, 10km out of Masaka town along the Kyotera highway. Seeing her daughter struggling to walk made the mother cry.

Kire believes her daughter would be stronger like other Aids patients on ARV treatment had she been getting adequate care.

"She was energetic and hardworking," Kire says of Najjumba as tears roll down her cheeks. "Unfortunately we have to do almost everything for her."

An estranged wife of a former employee of Masaka municipal council, Kire struggles to fend for her family. When she finds food, she then worries about the transport fares to Masaka regional referral hospital where her daughter was enrolled on anti-retroviral treatment.

"Her fellow teachers at times mobilize some money that we use to look after her, but it is still not enough," Kire says.

At times, Najjumba loses her memory and her sight.

"It's hurting; I don't know why they are not giving me my salary. No one has bothered to tell me why I was removed from the payroll," Najjumba told us.

She now regrets why she went public because that was the source of her problems.

No word

Before this writer told Nakalyoowa that he was going to write Najjumba's story, she had told us that her office was working round the clock to reinstate her.

"I have tried severally to have her back on the payroll though I'm yet to succeed," Nakalyoowa said before she hang up.

The town clerk, too, declined to answer our calls.

"The benefit of doubt we are giving them is until March, if nothing takes place, we shall seek legal redress," Nsereko said.

With persistent pressure from UNATU, we have learnt that authorities at the municipal council have turned hostile to teachers sympathetic to Najjuma's plight.

Alupo's take

Education Minister Jessica Alupo told The Observer the ministry would take up the matter.

"We know that primary school teachers are taken care of by local governments that is the [Chief Administrative Officers] and Town Clerks. But they should know that HIV-positive teachers should be treated with [humanity], but not discriminate against them," Alupo said.

She said her ministry would liaise with the Ministry of Public Service to access her file to establish the circumstances under which she was deleted from the payroll.

"I think we have to take disciplinary action against the officers that were involved because some other teachers could be suffering that way," she said.

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