HIV / AIDS
The AIDS epidemic has become a global crisis – currently threatening the lives of around 38 million people and devastating entire societies. Education systems have a critical role to play in fighting this epidemic, because of their capacity to reach very large numbers of young people with life-saving information and skills. A complete primary education can halve the risk of HIV infection for young people; and in fact, basic education has such a powerful preventative effect, especially for young women, that it has been described as the ‘social vaccine’. As the epidemic gathers pace, however, it poses increasing risks to education itself, threatening to stop children from enrolling, teachers from teaching and schools from functioning.
Millions of children around the world have been orphaned by the AIDS crisis. Aside from the emotional and psychological effects that losing a parent can have, there is clear evidence to show that orphaned children are dropping out of school at a higher rate than nonorphaned children.
Current knowledge suggests that when parents die, the amount of resources available for education decreases. As a result, orphans are more likely to drop out of school than non-orphans, as school fees become unaffordable.
However, when looking at the impact of orphanhood on education, it is important to consider not only enrolment rates, but also the quality and consistency of attendance.
Anecdotal evidence also suggests that the opportunity costs of schooling increase, and that AIDS-related stigma in the classroom (and discrimination on the part of teachers, students and parents) can also cause children to drop out of school. Such stigma and discrimination in schools contravenes the underlying principles of Education for All, and governments must legislate against all forms of discrimination.
The case for education is largely undisputed: countries have pledged their commitment to provide universal primary education, and the rights to education have been clearly enshrined in the Convention of the Rights of the Child. In the context of HIV/AIDS, an additional argument arises: a general foundation in formal education serves as a protective barrier to HIV infection. In other words, there is a negative correlation between HIV susceptibility and education attainment.
The dominant explanation for this phenomenon is that as an epidemic advances and people gain knowledge and skills, the more educated people are better able to change their behaviour, thus reducing their risk to HIV.