22 April 2013

Uganda: Govt Demands Students' HIV Status

Heads of schools are grappling with an unusual instruction, after the government ordered them to declare the HIV status of all their people, including students.

In a recent circular, the ministry of Education and Sports asked all schools to provide the HIV/Aids status of their students, teaching and non-teaching staff as part of data that would be collected in this year's school census.

It is an order that has stoked fierce controversy, in a country where, despite being a leading killer, HIV/Aids remains a largely private matter, even rarely cited in cause-of-death conversations.

The ministry's demand makes the list of many requirements to be filled out in the forms during the ministry census for all schools and tertiary institutions. The schools, which received their forms last Wednesday, must return them to the ministry today, Monday April 22.

The pink form for secondary schools, which The Observer has seen, requires schools, among others, to submit particulars about their students, teaching and non-teaching staff, infrastructure, sanitation, teaching materials and learners, teachers and non-teaching staff's HIV/Aids status.

But parents and teachers are opposed to the idea of mandatory declaration of HIV/Aids status because they say, availing such sensitive information may promote stigma. Tom Mpuuja Mutebi, a parent at Kampala Junior Academy, wonders how the ministry expects schools to come up with such information.

"How do you come to such conclusions when some people do not want to discuss such a sensitive topic? If they asked me in person, I would give them my status for planning

purposes in terms of providing healthcare but I don't think that is what they want it for," Mutebi said at the weekend. Another parent, of Aga Khan High School, admitted that the intention could be good but the ministry should tread carefully on this topic.

"The ministry should first tell us what it intends to do with such information. Do they have any special programmes for children?" she said.

But the Permanent Secretary in the ministry of Education, Francis Lubanga, warned in a recent circular to schools that any school that would not provide all the required information would lose its licence.

Francis Agula, the assistant Commissioner for secondary schools, told The Observer at the weekend that his ministry was only trying to assist the ministry of Health, which could not fight HIV/Aids alone.

"We have come in with a multi-sectoral approach to fight the disease. We have a programme and vision to look after those children who are HIV-positive but if they don't want to submit their results, we are not forcing them," Agula said.

According to Edward Ssemukasa, the head teacher of Kisaasi College School, the issue of HIV figures featured prominently at a recent meeting of Kawempe division school heads at Makerere University primary school. Head teachers reportedly argued that the ministry was asking too much from them, as schools could not test all students and teachers for HIV.

"I don't know why they want it; with the stigma associated with it, I doubt whether we can get information about HIV," Ssemukasa told The Observer. "In my opinion, this is stigmatising staff and students with HIV. They would have gone a notch higher to talk about other ailments but they talked about special needs and HIV. We cannot go asking every individual their HIV status. Anyone who knows their status keeps it to themselves."

He believes that the ministry should have addressed more pressing ailments like malaria and how many students miss school because of that, and urinary tract infections, which are a major cause of worry among females in boarding schools.

"HIV really cannot be got in a school, even if we know the status of some students, when parents bring in students they confide in the administrator so that we monitor them.

They want it to remain with us. Imagine if the media got hold of this information and they published the number of students in schools with HIV, it would cause stigma to those schools," Ssemukasa says.

Rashid Ssebutosi, the deputy head teacher for Mariam High School, says although they ask students to carry out a compulsory medical checkup every year, the HIV test is not required.

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