A 2000 survey in Rwanda by the National Population Office found that less than a third of respondents believed that people living with HIV should continue working. Almost a decade later, Rwandan teacher union SYPERWA (Unions of Education Personnel in Rwanda) set out to examine current attitudes towards teachers living with HIV with the aim of finding the best way to support and empower them to work and live positively.
SYPERWA President Sylvestre Vuguziga stressed the importance of such support “The discrimination and stigmatisation experienced by those perceived to be living with HIV can be more damaging than the physical effects of the disease itself.” Teachers living with HIV not only deal with the usual difficulties of their profession, with its long hours and overcrowded classes, but also have to make financial and time commitments to treatment from meagre salaries.
One teacher living with HIV signalled “As a profession teaching can by nature be difficult. Carrying out your duties becomes even more difficult as an HIV positive teacher. The medication means we need energy and a diet that is not feasible on our salaries. Add to that the lack of proper breaks and the situation takes a tragic turn”.
This is not helped by the fact that those living with HIV are often so stigmatised that they remain silent, not daring to access health services. The district commissioner for Ribavu was empathetic to the plight of teachers living with HIV, and advocated measures such as reduction in teaching hours and placement of teachers near their homes, and urged them to discuss and insist on the support they needed to continue teaching effectively.
Verbal discrimination was investigated in the study, as were more insidious forms of professional discrimination. One teacher noted that while colleagues were invited to participate in training taking place during school holidays the teachers living with HIV were not. Poignantly the teacher surmised, “It may be that they weren’t interested in us participating as they believe we won’t be around long enough to put into practice the skills learnt”.
The study not only surveyed attitudes and discrimination, it also pinpointed what practical help was available for those living with HIV. During interviews, school principals and district commissioners signalled their frustration that often those living with HIV preferred to ignore their status, or take unpaid leave to visit witch doctors instead of requesting their right to paid medical leave and attending a medical doctor.
As the attitude of teachers living with HIV towards their status was also a determining factor in their isolation, teachers were urged to show leadership in changing society’s view on AIDS. Amongst the recommendations was to be proactive in joining or creating associations of people living with HIV so as to better secure their rights. Other colleagues should do their part by including them in support groups and small enterprise schemes to assist them in living with HIV.
A history of higher numbers of teachers undergoing voluntary counselling and testing together with their readiness to discuss issues around HIV status led the SYPERWA to undertake research in the capital Kigali, and a further four districts of the country. Sensitive of the need to include the perspectives not only of those living with HIV, but also of those living and working beside them, SYPERWA interviewed 100 people including 40 teachers, 25 teachers living with HIV, 10 school principals, 5 district commissioners for education and 20 community members.
To find out about the SYPERWA research in greater detail consult the report(in French).