On Monday, December 1, the world celebrated Aids Day although Rwanda will officially mark it today. And according to statistics from the Ministry of Health, one person is infected with the virus every 30 minutes in the country. In fact reports show that more than 135,000 adults and 8,000 children living with HIV are on anti-retroviral therapy. But what is the situation like in higher institutions of learning considering that most students are at a stage where they are most sexually active?
Government school health policy
The policy says in order to ensure good health as well as good academic performance of learners; all institutions of learning must be engaged in coordinated activities which involve parents and community members. These activities are meant to promote youth development and prevent risky behaviour.
“The education sector also has a central role in the multi-sectoral response to HIV and Aids prevention through increasing awareness and enabling a positive attitude to HIV and Aids in the workplace environment. This can be done through the curriculum, teacher training, peer education, debating and life skills clubs,” the policy reads in part.
Do universities adhere to the policy?
Justine Imananimwe, the dean of students at University of Rwanda, College of Business and Economics, says although they don’t have conclusive figures of students living with HIV, they do exist. According to the don, the university has well stocked clinics to enable students get drugs and counselors to guide students on how to lead their life regardless of the HIV status.
“It is our culture to carry out voluntary blood testing and counseling every beginning of year so that we can know how to help the students with or without the infection. We always partner with the Ministry of Health to achieve this” Imananimwe says, adding that they work with all government hospitals to support the students.
The University Council also organises press conferences and hosts Aids experts every year in a bid to create awareness about the scourge.
Hesbon Andala, a lecturer at Jomo Kenyatta University, says they always encourage their students to do regular tests to establish their status, but also put condoms in all the washrooms as a way of promoting safe sex.
But the universities are not alone in this fight. Aids Health Care Foundation’s field officer Mary Kayitesi says they do pre-test counselling and post-test counselling.
“If any learner is found HIV-positive, we refer them to various health centres whom they partner with.
Aids clubs at university
A fourth year medical student at Butare University, who asked not to be named, says although it is hard to know who is HIV-positive or negative, the university has invested a lot in creating awareness about the scourge.
“We have a club called the University League Against Aids and a counselling department charged with reaching out to students as regards to HIV/Aids. This department is managed by a qualified medical doctor,” he says.
Education Times also independently established that both University of Rwanda College of Education and University of Rwanda College of Business and Economics have anti-Aids clubs tasked with the responsibility of creating awareness about HIV/Aids.
Dr Leonard Bantura, the clinical team leader of Aids Health Care Foundation (AHF), attests to this.
“We have carried out testing and counselling at University of Rwanda College of Education before. For those students we find HIV positive, we partner with Government hospitals to give them free medication” he says.
Likely cause of HIV among students
During a discussion with a number of university students, it was established that HIV/Aids is sometimes spread through the “sex for marks” transaction.
For instance a female student at one of the private universities says she has no problem with girls who sleep with lecturers in exchange for marks.
“I must graduate at whatever cost. I am beautiful and will use my beauty to compromise any lecturer who plans to fail me,” she says.
Asked if she does not fear to get infected, the student says one must be unlucky to get HIV/Aids.
“Of course I would tell my lecturer to use a condom but if he insists, what do I do yet I need the favour?” she reveals.
The other cause of HIV/Aids according to Henry Busuulwa, a teacher, is the love for expensive phones and lifestyles that pushes students into dating sugarmummies and sugardaddies.
“Most students want to eat well, dress nicely and hold the latest gadgets despite having no income. So in order to satisfy their desires, these students go out with any one as long as he can meet their needs,” Busuulwa says.
He adds that sugardaddies and sugarmummies usually want unprotected sex which these desperate students can hardly deny them since their interest is in the now and not tomorrow.
Busuulwa notes that what makes matters even worse is that these students also have sex with their campus girlfriends and boyfriends hence increasing the risk of infecting more people with the virus.
The other cause of HIV/Aids among students is the failure to use condoms consistently. A 2010 H.I.V Sero-Behavioural Study in six universities in the region established that condom use amongst the students was very low at less than 40 percent. The study noted that condom use increases with age, from less than 18 percent of the students aged 15 using a condom at first sexual encounter to about 68% between 20 and 24. However, condom use, there after declines to less than 52% amongst students aged 25-29 and declines further to 40% to those aged 30 plus.
Mitigating the risk
Speaking to The New Times recently, Dr Sabin Nsanzimana, the Rwanda Biomedical Centre head of HIV division, said the government intends to raise condom use by 13 percent, decreasing the estimated new infections in children from 1,000 to less than 200, and an increase in the fraction of male adult circumcision from 13 percent to 66 percent by 2018.
Lilian Mukakimenyi, a parent, believes the Ministry of Education in collaboration with the universities should adopt an integrated planning approach in which HIV/Aids programmes are captured in their budget. “This will enable government to allocate more resources to higher institutions of learning to tackle the HIV/Aids challenge better,” she says.
However, Harriet Kabami, a fresh graduate, says the only way to reduce on the number of infections at university is by students (especially girls) accepting who they are.
“Before students learn to live with the little they have, the rest is a waste of time. There is no way you will give orders to a sugar daddy on how he should have sex when he is the one giving you all the comfort,” she warns, adding that learners must eat their ‘poor’ meals happily and hold their cheap phones if they want to remain safe.
Regarding sex for marks, Andrew Matsiko, a university lecturer, says the only way such unethical and dangerous habit can be brought to an end is by students taking their studies seriously. He says it is female students who want to party all semester that end up approaching lecturers for freebies in terms of marks in exchange for sex.
“Although it is wrong to sleep with your students, some lecturers have no problem having sex with their students. So if you tempt them, they will exploit you,” Matsiko says.
Although universities seem to be handling the HIV/Aids challenge fairly well, we were unable to get statistics of students living with HIV currently and before as all concerned university officials denied us that information claiming that it was “confidential”. This makes it difficult to conclude whether there has been or has not been progress in the fight against the scourge in higher institutions of learning.
How to handle HIV cases
I think HIV-positive students need to be handled in a special way. For example some of them who are on ARVs should be allowed to leave class without seeking permission to go and take their medication. The university counsellor should also talk to them regularly.
Schools should work with parents and the community to help students with challenges. In this case, universities need the cooperation of neighbouring hospitals, counsellors and parents to fight HIV/Aids. Any one who thinks they can act alone will learn the hard way.
We may not want to talk about HIV/Aids in institutions of learning but the fact is that it is a reality. These students, if not counselled regularly, risk being hopeless and frustrated with life. They need to be supported fully.
Students should understand the code of conduct while at school. For example if it warns against stigmatising others, no one should be left unpunished if he violates the rule.
Having HIV/Aids while at school could be one of the most disorganizing experiences. Schools should have policies on how to handle such students and deal with discrimination. If that is not implemented, HIV-students could easily be stigmatised by their colleagues and lose interest in studies.
HIV/Aids can be a challenge to both the parents and students but life must go on. If there’s cooperation among all stakeholders, the student is bound to benefit.