HIV stigmatization and children: Fear and ignorance prevent HIV-positive children from going to school

The beginning of the school year is both anticipated and bemoaned by students around the world, but most students will never have to worry about being let in the front door. This is not the case for HIV-positive children in some communities, where stigmatization and fear can keep them from going to school.

HIV stigmatization is widespread, especially among people who do not understand how the virus is transmitted. Fear that their children will become infected can lead parents to demand the removal of HIV-positive children from school or to remove their own children to prevent interaction with HIV-positive students.

A recent Time Magazine article describes the stigmatization of HIV orphans in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The situation in Vietnam shows that it is not enough to have strong laws to protect the rights of HIV-positive individuals (as Vietnam does) — countries also need to have programs of active community involvement so that HIV-positive individuals are not targeted by their fellow community members.

Restriction of children’s access to school because of HIV stigmatization is not just a problem in Vietnam. On August 25, the Times of India reported that an 8-year-old boy was thrown out of school because of his HIV status. There have also been recent reports from Thailand and Uganda of children being barred from school or harassed because of their HIV status.

The social and economic consequences of poor education mean that it is imperative that HIV interventions focus not only on treatment and prevention but also on combating stigmatization. Many children who are affected by HIV stigmatization are already vulnerable because of loss of family support structures — these children should not be further disadvantaged because of the fear and ignorance of their communities. More needs to be done to reduce HIV stigmatization and to make sure that HIV-positive children — and the other children who would be removed from school because of fear — get the education they deserve.