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HIV & the right to education: Time to end the stigma

HIV AIDS | students denied education

Photographs of a girl in a school uniform along with her mother and aunt, wearing a mask had made quite the debate on social media regarding the rights of the people living with AIDS/HIV. She was denied admission to school last year by the parents of the school community. Later on, through the involvement of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, she was allowed to resume her education.

However, the girl has had to stumble upon harassment from the head of the school authority, the school principal himself. The girl admits that she is now a constant target of the headmaster. As a result, other girls do not even play with her. It’s ridiculous to see a school principal be so unprofessional having achieved the position passing degrees on fields as child education and child psychology etc. The unsympathetic insolence exposed by the principal to her sensitive issue is far from unbelievable.HIV | girl protesting

What the national STD policy has to say

According to sec 3.11 of the national STD Policy, “The Government of Sri Lanka will make sure that the promotion of human rights of people living with HIV/ AIDS, protected and respected and measures are taken to end discrimination and combat stigma which will provide an enabling environment to seek relevant services”. These said rights include,

  • The rights of everyone to life, liberty, and security of person
  • Freedom from inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
  • Equality before law
  • Absence of discrimination
  • Freedom from arbitrary interference with privacy or family life
  • The right to education
  • Freedom of movement
  • The right to work
  • A standard of living adequate for health and well-being including housing, food, and clothing
  • The right to information which includes the right to know about HIV/AIDS/STI related issues and safer sexual practices
  • The right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health
  • Right to participate in the cultural life of the community and to share in scientific advancement and it’s safety in health care settings prevention and control of sexually transmitted infections.

Discrimination of HIV in education settings

Back in 2016, it was a milestone for social justice and for HIV activists all-round the country when the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka stood up for the rights of the people living with the syndrome. ‘Discrimination of HIV in education settings’ was prohibited under all circumstances within the country especially to safeguard the rights of the HIV affected children.

HIV | Court Case 2016 | UNAIDS

Sri Lanka’s legal milestone was a big step forward for the rights of people affected by HIV in Sri Lanka and in South Asia. (Image Credits: UNAIDS)

The judgment is held as a solid judicial precedent for all the cases to come in the future. This undoubtedly marked a progressive step forward for the HIV community within the South Asian region. This was the first court decision in South Asia to make a general pronouncement recognizing the human rights of all people living with HIV.

Ignorance

Even though Sri Lanka has a national policy implemented by the National STD/AIDS Control Program of the Ministry of Health, the escalation of these situations from time to time demonstrates the futile implementation of the law in the country. Based on how the child has been treated, the contemporary status with regards to AIDS patients is indeed unsatisfactory. This not only shows a complete ignorance of HIV/AIDS but the lack of respect for a person’s rights. Particularly the rights of these children who are not even the victims of the deadly syndrome.

HIV | AIDS | Victim

The lack of awareness and ignorance about HIV/AIDS could leave kids like these helpless

The issue first arose in respect to a five-year-old boy who was denied education in a local School of Kuliyapitiya. The mother of the child applied to the school on the basis of the ‘nearest school is the best school’, as propagated by the government. The child was subjected to hefty discrimination by the school authorities and the villagers as to being an HIV positive and that his father’s cause of death was AIDS. With support from UNAIDS and the Positive Women’s Network, The mother filed her fundamental rights petition with the Supreme Court.

Non-arguably this is a straight violation of the child’s right to education as mentioned in the UNCRC. In a country where the legislature clearly recognizes the need for education of children below the age of 14 years, denying the right for this five-year-old boy based on rumors established within the local village is very much ironical. What proof did the accusers have? Most presumably I should say none. Because despite all the accusations made towards her child, the mother got him tested for HIV. The results confirmed the boy as HIV negative and free of AIDS.

Giving wings to any story

I’d like to quote this popular saying “සිංහල මෝඩයා කැවුම් කන්න දක්ෂයා (sinhala modaya kavum kanna dakshaya)’’ to support my argument here. The various political, economic, educational and social situations that arose within the country within the last few decades shows how irrational we are as a nation. The reaction by the public indicates nothing but the true meaning behind this popular saying.

It’s sad to see that most Lankans are good at spreading malicious gossips among each other. Eventually giving wings to any story without confirming anything first. Make any kind of mixture of flour and sugar, mould it and put it in a mouth. A Lankan would surely gulp this down to the very end until it is no more.

World AIDS Day | HIV

Scenes from the World AIDS Day 2017 in Sri Lanka (Image Credits: National STD/AIDS Control Programme)

The health authorities and the NGOs must be humiliated by now realizing that the million dollar awareness programs have all gone down the drain. Stigma and discrimination still remain to be parceled to the life of the local villager. We live in a country where the majority of the population listens to Lord Buddha’s preaching and goes to the temple 24/7. It’s a pity to say that we foster no humane consideration, care, and affection towards one another. If we did, these innocent children would not have had to suffer this sort of cruelty.

Silver linings and hope for a better tomorrow

Just imagine the mentality of these children right now. How justifiable are these accusations? It’s most certainly incomparable to the endless mental distress that is incorporated into the minds of these innocent souls. The hope on the faces of both these children was to get enrolled in a school and maybe to be away from this cruel society for a while.

Well, they say that there are 2 sides to every situation. Taking a most sympathetic understanding to the situation, Father Principal of Trinity College, Kandy together with the acceptance of the education minister Akhila Viraj Kariyawasam, provided the boy with a fully funded scholarship to be enrolled at the College. Trinity College is undoubtedly one of the most prestigious schools in the hill country. It’s also the alma mater of cricketing legend Kumar Sangakkara who is also a spirited HIV/AIDS activist in the country.

On the other hand, we hope that the girl from Ganemulla would also be given a just and fair solution to the dreadful misfortune she’s facing now at the hands of the school authority.

Every child has the right to education in a safe learning environment that respects their dignity. Stigma and discrimination are threats to children’s rights. They can only be addressed by communities coming together at a local level with increased awareness. Such public awareness, education, and communication are essential to foster social change, end stigma, and to help people overcome their fear and prejudice. It’s our collective duty as a society to protect child rights.

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