An Open Letter to The Honourable Minister of Education,
This letter comes to you from Positive Hopes Alliance; an organization comprising of people living with HIV, The National Union of Sea Farers in Sri Lanka; a union that works tirelessly to prevent HIV among the seafaring community of this country, The Youth Advocacy Network Sri Lanka; young people that advocate for sexual and reproductive health and rights, and The Grassrooted Trust that works on Comprehensive Sexuality and Relationship Education and HIV prevention, Care and Support.
Your statement on the 5th of March 2016 has no doubt elicited multiple responses as the media coverage indicates. This response is on behalf of people living with HIV, and those who work to prevent the further spread of HIV in Sri Lanka. People living with HIV are citizens of this country. They have had to often overcome difficult and challenging circumstances; stigma and discrimination related to their HIV status. The message of AIDS=DEATH in the 1980s exacerbated the fear and ignorance, and this has been well documented. A copy of The People Living with HIV Stigma Index Sri Lanka (2010) has been couriered to your office for further reference. In 2016 we have come far since the early 80s when pain and death were so much a part of the fabric of surviving HIV. With HIV treatment, provided free by the Ministry of Health, Sri Lankans now have access to life saving medication that increases the quality of life and allows for people to actually live full and productive lives despite their HIV status. With what we know about HIV transmission today, even mothers in Sri Lanka, with the right medical advice and assistance are giving birth to HIV negative children. Treatment is considered prevention with Pre-Exposure and Post Exposure Prophylaxis in the form of antiretroviral therapy. Life after HIV is not just possible, life after HIV is a reality for hundreds, if not thousands of Sri Lankans. Please visit – aidscontrol.gov.lk – a comprehensive information portal set up by the Ministry of Health to verify our statements, double check statistics etc, if you see fit, and are so inclined.
Some may argue that your statement, in response to the unfortunate incidents involving the boy and mother from Kuliyapitiya has compromised the prevention efforts of the Ministry of Health and Civil Society Organizations. As organizations working on HIV prevention, this gives us serious pause for consideration. We have to revalue our strategies and approaches to HIV prevention. Government awareness efforts, Global Fund funded prevention among key populations (those considered most vulnerable to HIV in Sri Lanka including those who sell sex, men who have sex with men, people who use drugs), workplace programmes by the HIV Business Coalition, and prevention efforts by other mandated agencies have all, apparently, failed. Miserably. At least in Kuliyapitiya. And with you, most definitely.
[dropcaps style=”e.g:style-1 or style-2 or style-3″ fchar=””]Your statement that a mother can pass on HIV to her child lacks the most basic facts on HIV transmission; surely you could’ve googled the information and responded more thoughtfully? And just so you know, mothers living with HIV do sleep next to their children, and also other members of their family. We can only hope that they continue to believe in the veracity of the information they’ve received from medical professionals and other advocates of prevention, and don’t assume that the Minister of Education knows better.[/dropcaps]
The people of Kuliyapitiya have put on an exhibition of wilful ignorance that is fed by the lack of access to accurate and comprehensive information among the general public. There is real fear among some people living with HIV that their family members, who don’t have HIV, would suffer a similar fate to that of the mother and boy of Kuliyapitiya. Fear is what we strive to overcome when living with HIV. Fear of dying – before learning, and then believing, you can live with it. Fear of medical costs – before learning of the free government programme. Fear of people finding out. In your quest for votes you ignored the facts. In your quest for votes you disclosed the confidential status of the mother by suggesting she is HIV positive. What gave you that right? If you check, you’ll find that you have contravened the articles on confidentiality of both the National HIV Policy (2011) championed by the Ministry of Health, and the National HIV Policy in the World of Work (2011), championed by the Ministry of Labour. You also went further to cast aspersions on her character, in an attempt to save face after being pilloried for your ignorance. Is this behaviour befitting of a Minister of Education?
Sir, we request that you make an apology to the mother and her son. Show the decent men and women who voted for you that you are willing to accept the fact you made a mistake, and that you are willing to learn and share accurate and appropriate information to stem the ignorant and bigoted responses by some in our country.
Finally, those of us working on HIV prevention, request that you help us by putting in place a plan to make stop playing catch-up with adults. The reason you don’t see a campaign for 4 + 4 = 8 is because we learn that in school. It is time we accepted the fact that we need literacy that transcends numbers and letters. We need emotional intelligence as much or more than book smarts. We need accurate and comprehensive, scientifically accurate approaches to sexuality education. UNESCO defines it thus –
“An age-appropriate, culturally relevant approach to teaching about sex, reproduction, and relationships by providing scientifically accurate, realistic, non-judgemental information.”
– UNESCO Technical Guidance Team, Comprehensive Sexuality Education
It is time to listen Honourable Minister. Kindly set up a mechanism to introduce Comprehensive Sexuality and Relationship Education in schools. And in the meantime, kindly ensure that your teachers are trained to effectively implement the existing HIV lessons in the Health Science curricula.
Let’s also stop pretending that classroom approaches to HIV prevention will exacerbate promiscuity. Our children and young people have access to uninterrupted streams of information online (the internet), and also from their peers. We need to balance out this noise with a sensible, scientific approach in the classroom. There are those who will help you achieve this goal. UNESCO, UNFPA, and UNICEF have all claimed to be in discussion with you in this regard. It is time to listen. 23 young people of school going age were infected with HIV in 2015, 22 in 2014 (Ministry of Health Data). How many more do we need before we change our blinkered approach to the facts of life?
Positive Hopes Alliance, National Union of Seafarers in Sri Lanka, Youth Advocacy Network & The Grassrooted Trust.
8th March 2016