World AIDS Day: A school takes on the challenges of HIV and AIDS
In the early 2000s, the Mulwari Secondary School, located in the outskirts of Livingstone, Zambia, was deeply impacted by the high prevalence of HIV in the local community. Student learning outcomes suffered as a result, with just 32% of grade seven and 30% of grade nine students passing in 2004.
“Before, our school was known as the grave school,” said one of the guidance counselors at Mulwari during a school visit in February 2016 as part of the second Learning Champions Forum (part of the Learning Metrics Task Force).
Fast-forward ten years, and the student body is no longer underperforming. Absenteeism has become only a minor issue, and the pass rate has climbed to 74% for 9th graders and 71% for 7th graders in just over a decade.
“The school realized there was a problem, we didn’t just sit idle,” said the school’s headmaster Judith Mushoke. “We found measures to mitigate it and we made a plan that targeted students and teachers.”
A challenging learning environment
Sitting in the cool shade of her office, Mushoke explained how many students were faced with a number of linked challenges that prevented them from concentrating on school work. Many parents were living with HIV, struggled with unemployment, and found themselves in deep poverty. As a result, students often had to step in or even head the household after a parent’s death, which took a toll on their school performance.
The school said alcohol consumption increased when out-of-work parents had nothing to do. And with bars open from the early hours, drinking habits often stretched to their children.
“The students would drink,” said Mushoke. “Students as young as grade four, and their performance was really affected.”
Other times, pupils living with HIV wrangled with a lack of support both at school and at home. Discrimination, stigmatization and hunger were all problems frequently dealt with by students.
The school responds
Aware of a growing problem, the school came up with a work plan to bring absent students back to the school and to create a healthy learning environment for all. The school created new health education guidelines and improved its counselling system.
Today, wooden signs emblazoned with messages are seen around the sprawling school grounds. Signs reading “Say no to peer pressure” and “Visit the youth friendly corners in schools and health centers” are nailed to trees along the dirt paths connecting the school’s many low-rise buildings. A flourishing school garden – along with donations from local NGOs – also helps provide food for students needing an extra nutritional boost during the school day.
The school’s response embraced a participatory approach that included parents, teachers, students, and local leaders. “We brought them and other stakeholders on board,” said Mushoke.
The school formed Community Action Groups (CAG) that are comprised of students who use theater and poetry to enter into the community and raise awareness. By explaining the actual facts on how someone can become infected– and not – and by spreading messages of support the students have helped the larger community remove stigma. The school’s direction mainstreamed HIV and AIDS education into the curriculum and it is also reflected in the school assessments so that the extent of student understanding is also known.
The task force also initiated home visits designed to encourage absent students to return to school.
Parents began to support their children and they put pressure on the local bars to open later and respect local drinking ages.
The new programme also created an environment where parents, students and teachers were all encouraged to know their status and open lines of communication with each other. This helped with identifying an appropriate response that the school could take to make a safer, healthier learning environment.
“We were able to come together and formulate a work place policy,” said Mushoke. “It’s very inclusive.”
Contributed by : Alexandra Waldhorn, IIEP Communications officer