Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe: Surviving as an HIV-positive teacher

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HARARE, 17 November 2008 (PLUSNEWS) - Memory Motsi* rents a room in Chitungwiza, about 20km from the Zimbabwean capital, Harare. She wakes up at five in the morning to get to work on time at the school where she teaches Grade 5 in Hatfield, a suburb in the city, because the poor salaries in education sector, totally outpaced by hyperinflation, mean she can no longer afford the bus fare to and from work.

She enjoys what she does and her pupils love her too; at the end of class some of them crowd around to get a hug. For the past five years she has been HIV positive and says her work keeps her mind from "straying" to problems like whether she will be able to afford next month's supply of antiretroviral (ARV) drugs.

As a member of the Progressive Teacher's Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ), Motsi was one of 60 teachers receiving subsidised ARVs from the union after it launched the treatment programme in June 2007. Before that she had been on the government's ARV waiting list for at least two years and was slowly losing hope of ever getting the medication.

For over a year the PTUZ had funded its ARV scheme using monthly subscriptions from its members, but in September 2008 its treatment programme began experiencing difficulties in the hyperinflationary environment.

Takavafira Zhou, President of the PTUZ, told IRIN/PlusNews that ending the programme was the most painful thing the leadership of the union has ever had to do.

"We couldn't sustain the programme because the prices of drugs just kept skyrocketing. Each month they would go up and we would increase our membership fees, until such a time when we couldn't afford them. When we launched the ARV scheme we had thought donors would come in and support us but unfortunately they have not been forthcoming."

After the scheme folded, the union managed to enrol some of the teachers in private ARV schemes run by non-governmental organizations; others, like Motsi, have not been so lucky, and have been struggling to keep themselves on treatment.

"I sell popcorn, roasted groundnuts, frozen fruit juices, and give extra lessons to children from my school and other children in Chitungwiza. Of course, this is in violation of the contracts I signed with the ministry of education, but I have to survive you know," Motsi commented.

Surviving in Zimbabwe's failing economy is like living in a nightmare. After working for more than 15 years in the teaching profession, Motsi has little to show for her dedication and hard work: a three-door wardrobe, a single bed, a two-plate electric stove, a kitchen cabinet and a rusty old kitchen table with only two chairs remaining.

Her ARVs, costing about US$50 a month, often mean foregoing other things. "After working hard for my money, these past two months that I have had to buy my own drugs I've been asking myself, 'Is it worth it that I go hungry and buy these ARVs?' But I guess I have no choice."

Motsi is one of the many teachers living with HIV who are struggling to get access to ARVs and medical care, even though they contribute about three percent of their meagre earnings every month to the National AIDS Trust Fund, commonly known as the "AIDS levy".

The AIDS levy, to which every worker in Zimbabwe contributes, was set up in 1999 to beef up national resources in the national fight against HIV/AIDS. Proceeds from this levy also helped finance the establishment of the National AIDS Council, which coordinates all the country's HIV/AIDS interventions.

According to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the high infection rate of teachers in Zimbabwe can be attributed to the government's policy of deploying qualified teachers to other areas; statistics show that at least 72 percent of married teachers in rural areas do not stay with their spouses.

The PTUZ estimates that every school in the country has lost at least three teachers to AIDS-related deaths in the past few years, and that one or two teachers are on sick leave every term as result of an HIV-related illness.

In the absence of official statistics, the PTUZ has used "cluster-based information" to show the vulnerability of teachers to HIV/AIDS and the serious impact it is having, not only on the profession but also on education in the country.

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* Not her real name

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