While schools are under pressure to distribute condoms at schools, not one of the 12 African countries represented at a high level meeting in Durban is doing so and most education officials felt this would be inappropriate.
Officials were unanimous that sexual abstinence should be the key HIV message at schools, but a number felt that schools should nonetheless help sexually active secondary school students to get access to condoms.
Education is about providing information. We can provide information about condoms and where to get them, but they should not be distributed at schools. The health department should do the distribution, said Zambia's Irene Malambo.
There will be a problem if teachers distribute condoms, as they will be seen to be promoting sexual activity, said Peter Fenton, from the Western Cape education department.
It would be better if the schools provided access to condoms, but the health department did the actual distribution. Earlier an official from KwaZulu-Natal reported that teachers who gave sex education lessons were branded as promiscuous while those that picked up condoms were branded as being unChristian.
Phuti Chonco, from South Africa's national education department, said while she favoured providing condom education schools should not distribute them in any way. Botswana's Sally Nkoane, who co-ordinates HIV/AIDS for the country's education ministry, was also against condoms on school property.
Yes, students are sexually active. But our education policy says students are not to have sex at school, so how can we give out condoms at schools?
Uganda's Aggrey Kibenge was also adamant that condoms should not be distributed at schools.
There was a decrease in HIV prevalence in Uganda before condoms were distributed, said Kibenge. Children under the age of 18 are not trusted to take independent decisions so why should we give these children condoms. Our duty is to guide this person. They could be having sex out of naivete. Our duty is to promote positive moral values, conduct and behaviour. We would be undermining this through condom promotion.
The Western Cape's Fenton advocated a compromise, arguing that a pro-abstinence, pro-values approach could be adopted in schools to balance students' access to condoms at schools.
We would need to include parents, stressed Fenton. Schools could hold meetings and decide not to distribute condoms at schools but places nearby, like spaza shops. Zimbabwe's Andrew Mavise stressed the delicacy of the issue, saying that condom distribution could undermine the entire school HIV/AIDS programme if parents were opposed to it.
He also cautioned that many condoms could be wasted at schools as students could use them for other things.
We distributed a lot of condoms in one rural areas that had a high rate of sexually transmitted infections. Although the condoms were disappearing, the STI rate remained high. When we investigated, we discovered the condoms were being used as fishing bait.
The officials, from 15 African countries, were attending a winter school on the impact of HIV/AIDS on education systems, organised by the University of KwaZulu-Natal's Mobile Task Team on HIV/AIDS Impact on Education (MTT).
The first of its kind in the world, the three-week long course was designed to help ministries of education understand the impact of HIV/AIDS on education systems, design a sector-wide response, and develop and cost a sustainable implementation plan. One of the key trends to emerge was that countries had focussed on addressing HIV/AIDS though life skills classes at schools.
There were few programmes focusing on the treatment, support and care for teachers and students living with HIV/AIDS.
Many countries still did not have fulltime staff dealing with HIV/AIDS, and the stigma associated with the disease meant that a number of countries disguised their HIV/AIDS interventions by placing them in departments such as quality control and employee assistance.
Countries teams attending the Winter School include Botswana, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Kenya, Guinea, Malawi, Mali, Namibia, Senegal, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. (Source: Health-e, 31 August 2004)