(Johannesburg, October 11, 2005) — Government neglect of millions of children affected by HIV/AIDS is fueling school drop-out across East and Southern Africa, Human Rights Watch charged in a new report released today. The region faces an unprecedented number of orphans, and governments must take urgent steps to keep these children in school and protect them from exploitation and other abuse.
“AIDS-affected children are failing to go to school, and it’s because their governments are failing them,” said Jonathan Cohen, researcher with Human Rights Watch’s HIV/AIDS Program. “These children have lost enough. They should not be turned away from school and lose their right to an education as well.”
In sub-Saharan Africa, there are more than 12 million children orphaned by AIDS, not including the millions of children whose parents are terminally ill. While overall school enrollment rates have risen to approximately 66% in the continent, AIDS-affected children have been systematically left behind. Recent surveys from Kenya, South Africa, and Tanzania show that orphans are more likely to withdraw from school, less likely to be at an age-appropriate grade, and less likely to have limited family resources spent on their education.
The Human Rights Watch report documents how children suffer de facto discrimination in access to education from the moment HIV/AIDS afflicts their family. Children leave school to perform household labor or to bereave their parents’ death. Many cannot afford school fees because their parents are too sick to earn a living. While some countries, such as Kenya and Uganda, have abolished primary school fees, schools repeatedly refuse admission to AIDS-affected children who cannot afford to pay for books, uniforms, and other school-related expenses.
Orphans and other AIDS-affected children said they had to leave school for reasons like failing to produce a birth certificate or failing to bring a desk to class. In many cases, they were being cared for by widows who had been stripped of their property when their husbands died of AIDS. In others, volunteers from community-based organizations resorted to pooling meager resources to provide orphans with basic necessities. Many orphans have eked out a living in the street or lived in households headed by other children.
“Governments bear the ultimate responsibility to protect children when their parents no longer can,” said Cohen. “Community-based organizations and churches are desperately trying the fill the void left by governments.”
Human Rights Watch called on governments in East and Southern Africa to bolster community-based organizations and foster care systems to address the crisis of AIDS-affected children. South Africa has a system of foster care, but it does not nearly meet the need in the era of HIV/AIDS. Kenya and Uganda rely almost entirely on charitable organizations to assist orphans. High rates of school drop-out are one of the most tangible results of this systematic government neglect, Human Rights Watch said.
Dropping out of school exposes orphans to a lifelong cycle of poverty and abuse. Children who drop out of school face a high risk of sexual exploitation, hazardous labor, and living in the street. Studies show that rates of HIV infection are higher among children with low levels of education.
“Some children are double victims of AIDS—first they lose their parents, and then they face a high risk of HIV infection after they drop out of school,” said Cohen. “Governments must make education a priority to break this vicious cycle.”