South Africa has the fastest growing HIV&AIDS epidemic globally and is the country with the most number of people infected in the world. Current estimates suggest over 33 million people are infected with HIV globally, and 5.3 million of these are South African. In just 12 years HIV prevalence amongst 15-49 year olds has risen from less than 1 per cent to over 20 per cent. Statisticians have estimated a significant fall in the average life expectancy of a South African and Dr. Alan Whiteside, based at the HIV&AIDS Research Unit at the University of Natal, believes it could be as low as 48 years by 2010.
However national averages, hide the different HIV infection rates across the nine provinces of South Africa. While Kwazulu Natal has witnessed the greatest number of infections with a prevalence of over 35 per cent in 2003, the Western Cape has the lowest HIV&AIDS prevalence at just over 13 per cent.
The HIV&AIDS pandemic is not merely a medical issue. It has highlighted gender inequalities; sexual violence and the abuse of women and children; breakdown of the family; the sex worker industry; unemployment; lack of education; and taboos and stigmas. HIV&AIDS has been a cause and a result of all of these issues and therefore cannot be addressed in isolation. Significant shifts in attitude and behaviour have to take place to tackle the virus and to encourage people to develop a sense of self worth, to be more responsible for their actions and show respect for others.
The National AIDS Plan and other South African government policies and initiatives have evolved to ensure a legal framework for prevention, care and support is in place. This includes the National Education Policy Act, 1996 (Act No. 27 of 1996) on HIV&AIDS, compiled to protect the rights of learners in public schools that are infected with and affected by HIV&AIDS.
Over time policies and action from the National Department of Education have created an “enabling environment (for) creative, sustained and effective action on HIV&AIDS” in the education sector. HIV&AIDS education in the context of life skills is asserted in the National Educational Policy Act of 1996 as part of both formal and integrated curriculum (cross-curricular and non-formal education) and the department’s commitment to the fight against HIV&AIDS is embodied in Tirisano. Established in 1999 the Tirisano programme is the National Education Department’s five year strategy to implement education and training for the twenty first century and is made up of five core programmes to address the educational, health and social needs of learners. HIV&AIDS is the first programme outlined and is comprised of three projects to analyse the impact of HIV&AIDS on the education system, raise HIV&AIDS awareness among educators and learners, and integrate HIV&AIDS into and across the curriculum.
This means that current South African government policy advocates the full integration of HIV&AIDS into education and training. It is an issue that needs to be discussed in all spheres of learning and working. It even stretches beyond prevention, demanding other inter-sectoral initiatives to ensure those infected and affected by HIV&AIDS can be identified and supported at a school level. Such policy also acknowledges and promotes “educators can and must help curb the disease and deal with its effects” and since 97 per cent of South Africans between the ages of 10 and 14 years attend school, “educators have a unique opportunity to change the course of the epidemic”. Government publications like the Department of Education’s, “The Emergency Guidelines for Educators”, 2000 and the Department of Health’s “HIV and AIDS: Care and Support of Affected and Infected Learners – a guide for Educators”, 2001 illustrate further their commitment to Tirisano and school led programmes to tackle the pandemic.
Where home life might be unstable, schools can provide a platform to teach children these crucial ‘life skills’ if the teachers are provided with suitable resources, training and support. Life skills are the basis on which life decisions are made including decisions to engage in sexual relationships. Resources like The African Pulse (see section 2.4 below) aim to alleviate some of the pressure on teachers to to be able to talk openly about HIV&AIDS and sex. It provides a stimulus for stronger class interaction, which in turn creates a more inviting environment within which experience, values and opinions can be shared.
The rate of infection amongst children and youth (under 20 years of age) is increasing steadily. Detailed studies of the prevalence of HIV&AIDS amongst children are limited because data is usually taken from ante-natal clinics, which few young people attend, so infection may not be detected for ten years. The first national study on HIV&AIDS and South African children in 2004 estimated that at least 5 per cent of children aged 2 to 18 years are HIV-positive and many of these are South Africans, who would not have contracted HIV through childbirth.