At least seven schools in Tanzania have taken to forcing schoolchildren with HIV to wear a red ribbon on their clothing that announces their health status, according to BBC News. Critics say that the decision stigmatizes children whose lives are often already complicated by the disease, whereas some school officials say that the measure has been taken to ensure the students’ safety.
Headmaster Mohammed Lukema of Kihaba Primary School insists that parents of the HIV-positive children have asked for the policy so that their children may be excused from heavy work like sweeping school compounds or hauling water. “Our school has pupils who are suffering from various diseases,” he said, “The school and the society at large have decided to label pupils’ uniforms.”
Rebecca Mshumbusi, chairperson of the Kibaha Association of People Living with HIV/AIDS, called the ribbons an invasion of privacy. “The information of one’s sickness is confidential unless if one decides to share it with others. There are laws that can punish those revealing other’s health status.”
Activist Jane Tibihita of Upendo Partnership told the BBC that the policy is intended to isolate and stigmatize HIV-positive people. She worries that such measures could prove harmful to students, particularly if no effort is made to educate the general populace about the myths and realities of HIV transmission.
Sadly, she said that most AIDS organizations in the region are too busy trying to stem the tide of new cases and treat the cases who already exist. However, new laws forbid the stigmatization of people with HIV.
“Now, the HIV and Aids Prevention and Control Act allows one with concrete evidence to be taken to court on the grounds of stigmatization and one can be sentenced for up to three years.”
The country’s health minister has said he cannot comment until the matter has been investigated. Approximately five percent of the population of Tanzania are estimated to be HIV-positive.