JIS News

The HIV/AIDS epidemic has been impacting negatively on all sections of societies across the world, including children. The stigma attached to children and staff members in schools, who are infected with the disease, can be fiercely discriminating and devastating.
Acknowledging this reality, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Culture is seeking to use the National Policy for HIV/AIDS Management in Schools to create a non-discriminatory environment, which will lead to respect and confidentiality of persons living with HIV/AIDS in schools.
Since January 2004, schools have been gradually introducing the guidelines and requirements of the policy.
Jenelle Babb, Public Relations Specialist on the Ministry of Education’s HIV/AIDS Response Team explains how the team has been working to introduce the policy in the schools across the island. “One year after introducing the document, we have begun the roll out of implementation. It is different from the dissemination process and involves working one-on-one with the schools in helping them to own the issues of the policy and creating their own unique action plans, whereby they set for themselves a target to implement one or two tenets of the policy,” Miss Babb tells JIS News.
Highlighted in the policy and its implementation in schools is the need to protect the rights of students and employees within educational institutions. The document further states that such protection can be assured with the enactment of appropriate Statements of Intent that are outlined.
The Statements of Intent outline the guidelines that schools should follow when designing their action plans. These include: Non Discrimination and Equality, whereby no student or staff member with HIV/AIDS may be discriminated against directly or indirectly. Speculation or gossip concerning any person suspected of having HIV/AIDS must be discouraged. HIV/AIDS Testing, Admission and Appointment, stipulates that no student may be denied admission to or continued attendance at an institution on account of his or her HIV/AIDS status or perceived HIV/AIDS status, and further, that no staff member may be denied the right to be appointed in a post or to be promoted on account of his or her status. Nor shall HIV/AIDS be a reason for dismissal or for refusing to renew any staff member’s employment contract.
Another tenet looks at the Attendance at Institutions by Students with HIV/AIDS. It stipulates that students living with HIV/AIDS have the right as any other to attend educational institutions and that these students are expected to attend classes as far as is in the statutory requirements and for as long as they are able.
A key tenet that the policy also highlights is the issue of Disclosure and Confidentiality. This tenet states that no student (or parent on behalf of the student) or educator is compelled to disclose his or her HIV/AIDS status to the institution or employer.
It also explains that voluntary disclosure of a student’s or educator’s HIV/AIDS status to the appropriate authority should be welcomed and an enabling environment should be cultivated in order to facilitate this disclosure. Confidentiality of such information must be ensured and any form of discrimination be prohibited.
Additional tenets of the policy are: Education on HIV/AIDS for children, staff members and families; Provision of a Safe Institutional Environment for children and staff members; Prevention Measures Related to Play and Sport for students and teachers; and eliminating Refusal to study with or teach a student with HIV/AIDS or to work with or be taught by an educator with HIV/AIDS.
These recommended tenets have also been given legal support through the Attorney General, who has provided a review of existing laws and made recommendations regarding the development of new legislation to address issues raised by the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Jamaica. These recommendations have served as guidelines for developing the tenets within the National Policy for HIV/AIDS Management in Schools.
Miss Babb informs JIS News that the tenets of the policy are also in line with the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) 10 principles that govern HIV/AIDS in the workplace. “The tenets of this policy follow the tenets of any policy on HIV/AIDS and they pretty much adhere to the ILO’s 10 principles on HIV/AIDS in the workplace, but they do govern all the issues inherent in what our policy should govern – the ideas of gender equity, voluntary disclosure, non discrimination and confidentiality,” she explains.
She says that Jamaica is now the front runner in the region in developing and implementing a policy. “Actually, Jamaica is leading the way in this particular area, because it is the only country in the English speaking Caribbean and the Caribbean at large, that has such a policy for guiding the response to HIV/AIDS in the education system,” she points out.
A concern about the implementation of the policy is how the Education Ministry will ensure that schools are following its recommended guidelines. Miss Babb explains that due to the nature of the policy, encouragement of its implementation is required, more so than monitoring. “What we want from the schools is to be constantly doing activities that will constantly work towards reducing stigma and discrimination and the creation of an enabling environment that promotes voluntary disclosure, and one of confidentiality,” she explains.
“Inherent in the Ministry of Education’s standpoint is that our product is education and that has to be a long term prevention tool as well, because education is the most important issue in the policy, the idea of on-going education to reduce new cases of infection and to educate on how to interact with persons who are infected or affected indirectly,” she adds.
Important to the success of the policy’s implementation in the schools is the response of all stakeholders, especially teachers and parents. “Responses have been mixed. Conceptually it has been positive, but the reality of what it involves only comes with being confronted with the situation, so the positive is that we have a document that guides what should or should not be done in a case where a student or staff member is afflicted with HIV/AIDS,” she tells JIS News.
In respect of the number of schools being targeted, Miss Babb points out that initially, the team focused on secondary schools due to the fact that the disease was rising quickly in that age group (12 to 18 years). However, she says that since that time, the situation has changed. “We have found that where cases of HIV/AIDS become noticeably visible, is at the junior or primary level, primarily due to mother-to-child transmission and not due to sexual activity, as we thought with the older age group. So it has become important to target that group much earlier than we expected and we also now find that there is also a need to focus on early childhood and their needs,” she explains.
She emphasises that it is important that children also understand the guidelines of the policy in order to remove and reduce the dangers of stigmatization. “We have different types of targets and products, depending on whom the actual direct and indirect beneficiaries are, and that is where they [children] will rationalize for themselves what the issue really means. Children live what they learn and stigmatization is not something they may come with on their own but they can be taught how to respond to persons afflicted with HIV/AIDS. Even children with the disease are taught how to react to the nature of their own illness,” Miss Babb notes. A major concern for the response team in their efforts to implement the policy has been the issue of disclosure and confidentiality and the need to protect the rights of infected and affected persons. Miss Babb informs that her team has been working to ensure that confidentiality becomes top priority in the effort to avoid major backlashes.
She acknowledges that when the status of infected children and staff is exposed, confidence is lost and this exacerbates the situation. “The fact is stigmatization and discrimination will drive the epidemic underground; it has been doing that,” she notes.
The Ministry is however, working to remove these challenges in order to ensure the policy’s objectives of educating students, parents and staff members on the importance of respecting the rights of persons living with HIV/AIDS, and also how to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, are achieved.
Miss Babb explains that her team has been working to develop health advisory committees in the schools as they seek to speed up the implementation of the policy in the institutions. “Personnel such as regional team members and health specialists are going into the schools, following initial sensitization, and starting the process of developing health advisory committees that speak to the implementation of the policy and also far reaching implications, such as the creation of healthy environment and contextualizing HIV/AIDS in respect of health and wellness,” she adds.
As the new school year gets underway, Miss Babb tells JIS News that the immediate goal of the team is to have the schools develop action plans, which will be guided by principles of the policy.
“We want them to develop action plans and do specific activities, one per term, so they would have accomplished three activities for the year. Some of those activities should be to reduce stigmatization and promote wellness in general,” she explains.
Miss Babb points out that the success of the policy will be gauged by assessing the schools that have developed their action plans and are meeting their targets. The policy will also be reviewed within a five-year period to take into account any new developments in the methods of infection and the treatment of persons living with HIV/AIDS.