Nomvuzo Vilo teaches Grade 6 at Emjalisweni Primary School in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. But by her words and deeds, she teaches much more than Grade 6 to her students, their parents and the community.
As a master trainer in the HIV and AIDS programme, she shares the lessons of her own life: the effectiveness of anti-retroviral drug therapy and the possibility of living positively with HIV. Vilo overcame her fear of the stigma and disclosed her HIV-positive status during training offered through her union, the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union, in cooperation with EI, the World Health Organization and the Education Development Centre. First diagnosed with HIV in 1999, Vilo didn’t feel ill until almost five years later. But by 2004 she had lost her baby to AIDS and was so sick she could no longer work. She ended up in hospital, where she began receiving anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs). She says she is proof that ARVs really do work. “That is the message I want to pass on to everyone, but especially to teachers, everywhere,” she says, adding that ARVs “are the reason I am healthy and very fat again!” Vilo is one of many teachers doing her utmost to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS. Her courageous public stand and deep commitment to education for life can serve as an inspiration to many others who struggle against the most deadly pandemic in human history. World AIDS Day takes place on December 1 each year. This year’s theme is: “Stop AIDS. Keep the Promise.” On December 1, EI and other advocates around the globe will be calling on the G8 leaders to live up to their promises of achieving universal access to anti-retroviral drugs by 2010. “AIDS thrives on ignorance, so we see education as the single most effective social vaccine to prevent the spread of the pandemic,” says Wouter van der Schaaf, EI’s coordinator of the EFAIDS programme, which combines teacher training on HIV and AIDS with advocacy for universal education for all by 2015. Since 2001, the programme has grown to embrace 40 unions in 25 countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, with plans for further expansion now under study. So far EI has faciliated member unions to train more than 150,000 teachers in almost 40,000 schools. The programme has also strengthened the teacher unions’ role in combatting the pandemic, and has fostered valuable partnerships between the unions and their national ministries of education and health. Trainers use the Teachers’ Exercise Book for HIV Prevention, which was developed by the teachers’ unions in Southern Africa. Teachers are trained to tackle all issues related to HIV andAIDS, sex and condom use, and to develop greater ease in discussing such sensitive topics. They also learn advocacy skills to help implement programmes and policies in schools. One of the key goals is to destigmatize HIV and AIDS, so that those who are affected and infected do not feel ashamed to reach out to their unions and their medical communities for help. “We want to make sure that teachers who are HIV positive are not ostracized, and that we are supporting our colleagues,” said van der Schaaf. “The unions should be a home or a refuge for teachers living with AIDS.” Vilo agrees that it is crucial to have a support network, whether it’s family or, if that’s not possible, close friends or colleagues. She participates in a support group that meets every Saturday in KwaZulu-Natal. Prevention, testing, care, access to treatment, mutual support and solidarity: These are all aspects SADTU is emphasizing with its members, says David Mbetse, national HIV and AIDS coordinator. At the last EI Congress in Porto Alegre, President-elect Thulas Nxesi challenged teacher trade unionists to go beyond awareness and prevention campaigns, and “take this struggle to the next level.” He said: “We have to campaign for appropriate medical treatment, and to defend the rights of colleagues and learners living with HIV/AIDS. We have to stand up in our communities and speak out against prejudice and stigma.” Certainly people’s reluctance to be tested for HIV is directly related to the severe discrimination experience by HIV-positive teachers. UNESCO’s Global Monitoring Report 2006, says that the stigma associated with HIV is the principal cause of teacher absenteeism and shortage, especially in Africa. Unfortunately children who are HIV positive also suffer from the stigma. Perhaps most tragic of all, the millions of deaths of parents, teachers, and community leaders have left a generation of children without adults to care for and guide them. At least 14 million children have been orphaned by AIDS, and that appalling number is expected to rise by an additional four million in the foreseeable future, according to Stephen Lewis, UN special envoy to Africa on HIV and AIDS. “How do you deal with the trauma [of being orphaned]? How do you repair those young psyches? When there is nowhere else to turn to overcome the desecration of the child’s life, it’s the teachers who become the therapists,” Lewis said in an address to Canadian teachers. In all his travels, Lewis said, the children always point to school as the source of hope and healing. And for teachers like Nomvuzo Vilo that is one of the most important reasons to stay healthy and to continue working. “We need to keep teachers alive, because we need them to teach the children,” Vilo says. The EFAIDS programme is at work in: Bolivia, Botswana, Burkina-Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Guinea, Guyana, Haiti, India, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mali, Namibia, Niger, Peru, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe. By Nancy Knickerbocker, with files from David Mbeste and Laura Sullivan