October 11, 2005
AIDS-affected children are failing to go to school, and it’s because their governments are failing them.
Jonathan Cohen, researcher with Human Rights Watch’s HIV/AIDS Program

(Johannesburg) - 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.

The 55-page report, "Letting Them Fail: Government Neglect and the Right to Education for Children Affected by AIDS," is based on firsthand testimony from dozens of children in three countries hard-hit by HIV/AIDS: South Africa, Kenya, and Uganda. It documents how governments fail children affected by AIDS when they leave school or attempt to return. Churches and community-based organizations provide critical support to these children, but these groups frequently operate with little government support or recognition.

"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."

Children's Testimonies

When Mother was sick, it was us who were looking after her. . . . I left school for one term and then went back. Then my sister left school for one term, and we traded back and forth like that. But even when I was in school, it was not good, because my mind was back with my mother, and it was not easy to concentrate on my studies.

-A Ugandan boy who lost his mother to HIV when he was twelve and his father when he was sixteen 

I didn't have time to study. I would go home from school and find nothing in the house-no love, nothing. I had to do a job my parents should have been doing. I was a teenager, I should have been going out with my friends, playing soccer, dating. I tried to make it work, but I couldn't. When I got my report card last December, I'd failed.

-A South African boy who was forced to leave school when he was seventeen to care for his mother, who was dying of AIDS 

It was very hard, because I had to take care of my sister and her baby. Sometimes I would leave school for a whole week to take care of them. The baby was only six months old, so I had to wash the nappies, clean the house, everything. . . . I got my report card last December, and it said "Fail." I was angry. I asked myself, why do I have to fail?

-A South African girl who lost her mother to HIV/AIDS when she was thirteen and later learned her older sister was HIV-positive 

My classmates, they knew my parents had died, they caused problems for me. I was segregated. I was known as ‘The son of AIDS,' and teachers and students would call me ‘TASO Child.' . . . When we were sharing desks, the kids wouldn't want to sit next to me. . . . It would be terribly hurtful as a child to be called ‘TASO Child.' It was only name-calling, no physical abuse, but still.

-A Ugandan boy who was orphaned by HIV/AIDS at age eight and received assistance with his school fees from TASO, The AIDS Service Organization 

I didn't have time to sit and study at home, because I was always working. I wasn't even allowed to turn on the light late at night. I didn't have time to concentrate on my studies. I had to wake up at 5:00 a.m. for school, and it was an hour's walk. I went to a different school from my aunt's kids. They were already in school when I arrived, so I had to register myself. My aunt just didn't want me going to school.

-A South African girl, describing how she was treated by her aunt after losing her mother to HIV/AIDS at age fifteen 

My kids go to school because there's a father who can take care of them. But because I'm a poor African woman, I can't raise enough money for the three orphans. The one in secondary school, sometimes she misses first term because I'm looking for tuition. The others miss school for two or three days at a time. I had a cow I used to milk, but as time went on the cow died, so I can't find any other income. . . . I used to get a ten liter jerry can of milk and raise school fees for the child in secondary school. But now that the cow died, I have nothing.

-A caregiver in Uganda describing how she could not send orphans in her care to school, because she was stripped of her property when she was divorced 

It was very difficult, because there was a lot of stigma. People would say we were suffering because our mother was promiscuous, that's why she died. Our neighbors disliked us and didn't listen to anything we said. When our mother was sick, they wouldn't even pass by the door or come into our house. At school, the kids knew my mother was sick but we never told them she had HIV. When she died, we just left school immediately. I didn't even find it important to stay. Even if they had let me stay free of charge, I still needed to go and find odd jobs so I could feed the family and pay the rent.

-A Kenyan girl who lost her mother to HIV/AIDS when she was seventeen and was forced to take care of her four siblings 

Even now with my siblings and step-mother, I am discriminated against. They live in Kumi district, and they don't want me to come there. My stepmom says not to visit. . . . Even my siblings in Kumi don't want me to visit, they don't want to share food or cups with me. The stepmom in Kumi didn't want to let my Dad pay for my schooling, because she said "This boy is going to die anyway."

-An orphaned boy in Uganda, diagnosed with HIV/AIDS when he was fifteen