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Red ribbons for HIV-positive children in Tanzania

Amnesty International has revealed that several Tanzanian schools are forcing HIV-positive pupils to wear red ribbons to class.  Amnesty International has cautioned against this practice, which stigmatizes those suffering from the disease.

Although the headmaster at one of the schools has said that it was done at the parents' request to excuse sick children from strenuous activities, it is clear that such singling out of children with HIV can have negative effects.

Michael Bochenek, Amnesty International’s Legal and Policy Director, says that the idea that forcing HIV-positive children to wear red ribbons to 'protect them' is ludicrous:

“HIV status is an entirely private matter until a person decides to share it with others. Children who are HIV-positive can live healthy and active lives if they are given the right care – stigmatizing them in this manner and leaving them open to abuse is deeply misguided.  It’s likely to result in further discrimination and mean that people will decide to not get tested for HIV. Overall, it could lead to reduced access to the health services people need.

“The Tanzanian authorities must launch an investigation into why this was allowed to happen and bring in fresh initiatives to educate people about stigmatizing those with HIV.”

According to UNAids, some 1.4m people - about 5% of the population - in Tanzania are living with HIV. Around 160,000 children under the age of 14 are HIV positive.

The Children's Human Rights Network (CHRN) has been keeping an eye on the situation on Tanzania since September, when a member brought our attention to the practice.  There was some discussion as to an alternative that would save children the stigmatizing 'mark' of a red ribbon.  David Maidment, the CHRN children's rights adviser and founder of The Railway Children, an NGO for street children, explains a strategy that worked well in India:

"The Railway Children partnered with an Indian NGO called New Hope that ran a number of emergency shelters for runaways and street children on India's railway stations in the States of Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. Around five or six years ago the organisation, funded by Sport Relief through Railway Children, built a hospice for HIV infected children on land in a village called Kottavalasa, near the Indian Ocean naval city of Visakhapatnam.  It shared the land with a residential home and school for street children also run by New Hope.

"The staff allowed the children from the hospice and the home to mix, watch TV and play games together.  So that the staff were aware of children that were HIV positive, those children wore red ribbons on their chests.  But all the other children also wore ribbons similarly, but of different colours.  The children believed that the colours denoted which 'houses' or 'teams' they belonged to.  Only the staff were aware of the significance of the red ribbons."

What do you think?  Is this a good solution for the problems presented by the stigmatizing red ribbons in Tanzania?  Or is HIV an entirely private matter, to be kept from school staff?

Regardless of what is a suitable 'interim' solution, Bochenek's call for fresh initiatives education people about stigmatizing should be heeded by the Tanzanian government.


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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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