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Teachers Show Courage and Hope in Personal Fight Against HIV/AIDS

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  • An estimated 122,000 teachers in Sub-Saharan Africa are thought to be living with HIV
  • A new report and film, Courage and Hope, documents the stories of 12 infected teachers
  • Teachers are often the first line of defense in teaching children about preventing HIV/AIDS

WASHINGTON, December 8, 2008 -- Over the many harrowing years since HIV was first identified in the United States in 1981, the virus has marched relentlessly across continents and communities, and thoroughly permeated our notions of global health, politics, and culture. And yet the disease remains a polarizing or shameful topic for many people to discuss openly.
A new Bank-financed report and documentary launched December 3 at an AIDS summit in Dakar, Senegal, charts the personal stories of 12 African teachers who volunteered to talk openly about their struggles with HIV.

According to Courage and Hope: Stories from Teachers with HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa, some 122,000 teachers there are thought to be living with HIV, and the vast majority have not asked for testing and do not know how far their disease has advanced -- a key determinant for effective treatment.

Even the teachers who agreed to be interviewed for the Bank report used only their first names, although four courageous men and women did agree to be filmed for the documentary.

Fight the Stigma

Despite wide knowledge about HIV in all of the African countries covered in the report -- Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, and Zambia -- the teachers said that stigma and discrimination remain the first and most prominent elements of the community response to HIV, and is a barrier to accessing and providing care, support, and treatment.
“HIV does not kill. What kills is the stigma and discrimination associated with the virus,” says Beldina Atieno, a 38-year-old teacher from Kenya who learned the hard way how to cope with discrimination after being thrown out of the house by her husband and losing her children as well as her job.

Before she lost her teaching post, her colleagues would smash her cups and pour her bottles of juice down the drain. Delivered back to the realm of the living by anti-retroviral therapy (ART), Atieno was hired back as a teacher, and shows her re-dedication to life by helping her young students stay HIV-free, while counseling fellow teachers to get tested for the virus.

A New Life

“My only challenge is how to get teachers to know their status so that those who are HIV-negative would stay so, and those testing positive could learn to live positively,” Atieno said. “I have made people realize that testing positive is just starting a new life. The challenges I had before, like being discriminated against, are no more -- I have overcome those.”
Margaret Wambete from the Kenya Network of Positive Teachers, whose story inspired “Courage and Hope,” talks about wanting to help her students and the young teachers of tomorrow learn from her life experience first-hand. 

“Young teachers are coming up tomorrow when I’m not there… at least I’m happy that whatever I’ve built, there are other people who will pick up the battle and shoulder on with the journey. I’m very happy about that,” Wambete told the documentary film crew.

Telling the Story

Don Bundy, the World Bank Human Development Network’s leading authority on education and HIV, encouraged the Bank and the Partnership for Child Development to finance “Courage and Hope” after hearing Wambete speak at an education summit in Gabon in 2006. Wambete’s speech focused on how teachers with HIV were returning to their classrooms, thanks to miraculous AIDS-fighting drugs, and playing new leadership roles in fighting the disease. 

“You see the most amazing process with these teachers…they go from utter despondency when they first find out they have the virus, to  rejection by former friends, family and the community…but then they start treatment, they reclaim their lives, get back into their classrooms and give the job more passion and commitment than ever before,” said Bundy. “This kind of support for teachers helps both maintain the trained workforce and provides young people with credible adult role models.”

Bundy and longtime colleague, Elizabeth Lule, manager of the Bank’s ActAfrica program – The World Bank Africa Region’s response to HIV/AIDS -- say that in recent years the education sector has become increasingly important in preventing HIV. Children of school-age, they say, have the lowest HIV infection rates of any population group, and even in the worst-affected countries, the vast majority of schoolchildren are not infected.

The Chance for a Life Free from AIDS

For these children, there is a chance to live a life free from AIDS if they can acquire knowledge, skills, and values that will help protect them as they grow up. Providing young people, especially girls, with the ‘social vaccine’ of education offers them a real chance at a productive life, free of HIV.

“Teachers are in the forefront of efforts to teach their young students about preventing HIV, and yet, because everyone holds them in such high esteem, they can end up on the receiving end of some heavy-duty blame and recrimination from parents, village elders, and other fellow teachers if they contract HIV,” says Lule, a specialist on adolescent and reproductive health.  

The world’s largest federation of teaching unions, Education International, contributed to the book and has praised the making of the new documentary for showing the professionalism and resilience of teachers in wanting to get back to their jobs and pass on their valuable life lessons to their young students.

“This shows that courage and hope are stronger than the HIV/AIDS virus, and teachers and their unions need to organize themselves so that hope -- and not the virus -- is the ultimate winner,” said Gaston De la Haye, a senior consultant at   Education International in Brussels. “Teachers in the video bring proof that education is the better social vaccine against HIV/AIDS infection.”

The documentary was screened simultaneously at the International Congress on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA), held in Dakar, Senegal, and at the UNAIDS World AIDS Day Film Festival in Geneva, Switzerland.

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