Many teachers in Zimbabwe not only fail to acknowledge the AIDS epidemic ravaging their country, but are perpetuating the deadly disease by having unprotected sex with their students, health and education experts say.
The American Federation of Teachers hopes to help change such cultural norms and ultimately curb the spread of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa by creating an awareness campaign targeted at educators—the population that many health officials see as most influential in both aggravating and curtailing infection with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
“In talking with our colleagues in Africa, we realized the best thing we can do to help teachers and education is to find ways to counter AIDS among teachers,” said David Dorn, the director of international affairs department for the union. “We see AIDS as an education crisis.”
Teachers have a higher rate of HIV infection than any other segment of the population in Zimbabwe, the southern African nation of 11.3 million considered to be the “epicenter” of the continuing, worldwide AIDS crisis, said Dennis Sinyolo, the national secretary general of the Zimbabwe Teachers’ Association, based in Harare. Of the 90,000 people who teach in Zimbabwe, an estimated 30 percent are infected with HIV, he said.
Their likely premature deaths mean Zimbabwe will have an even more difficult time finding educators to teach, Mr. Sinyolo said. As a result, fewer students will likely receive the education they need to help the poor country compete in the global market. Currently, more than half the students who complete compulsory education— schooling for children ages 5 to 12—do not further their education, though opportunities are provided.
The goal of the American and Zimbabwean unions is to train a cadre of educators about the transmission and prevention of the disease, then dispatch those teachers to instruct others, Mr. Dorn said. Teachers are revered leaders in many Zimbabwean communities, he explained, and children and adults alike seek their counsel.
Like many unions, the AFT has forged relationships with other labor organizations around the world in order to share advances and address common concerns, said Jamie Horwitz, a spokesman for the union. Moreover, he said, the AFT has long been dedicated to the cause of international education and will spend about 1 percent of its $101 million budget this fiscal year on outreach efforts.
The 1 million-member union announced the program informally here last month. It will carry the effort out along with the Zimbabwe Teachers’ Association, to which all of that country’s teachers belong.
The beginnings of a 19-month pilot program are already under way in Zimbabwe. So far, a needs assessment has been conducted with the help of AFT staff members, and a delegation of Zimbabwean union leaders and national health-care officials has traveled to the United States to examine AIDS education programs in Baltimore, New York City, and Washington.
A $140,000 grant from the U.S. Department of State and seed money of about $100,000 from the AFT are underwriting the project, Mr. Horwitz said. The American union will supplement that money with a fund-raising campaign in the coming school year. If the pilot is successful, it will be expanded to include other nations in Africa.
“Beyond any imagination, this is a great strategy,” said Sabada Dube, the Zimbabwean assistant health- programs director for the New York-based African Services Committee. He met with the delegation from Zimbabwe earlier this summer to discuss an AIDS- prevention program sponsored by his nonprofit organization. “Teachers are not only the mentors of academic life but of social life. They are the people who have values and can impart them.”
Few in Zimbabwe are surprised to learn that teachers have the highest rates of HIV infection there, Mr. Sinyolo said.
In rural sub-Saharan Africa, many educators are infected while they work as prostitutes to earn money for their schooling, according to Mr. Sinyolo. As classroom professionals, they are often “seduced” by students and participate in unprotected sexual intercourse, he said.
“I have received reports of parents presenting their children to the local teacher for sex in return for a place in the classroom” in African nations, Fred van Leeuwen, the general secretary of Education International, told the worldwide coalition of education employees’ unions at its meeting in Thailand last month. “This appalling practice is a disgrace to our profession; it undermines almost everything we try to do to promote quality education for all, and we must stop it.”
Mr. Sinyolo said the disease has run rampant, in part, because it is taboo in Zimbabwe both to talk about AIDS and to use condoms as a preventive measure during sexual intercourse.
Even those who do learn of their infection cannot afford the drugs to fight the illness, he said. The medicinal “cocktails” needed to stave off AIDS or subdue its effects cost thousands of dollars more than the average worker earns annually.
A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2001 edition of Education Week as AFT Aims To Enlist African Teachers In War on AIDS