Have you ever asked your child whether they would shun a child with HIV? Or whether they think children with HIV should be allowed to go to school? According to a study of 40 000 children aged 12-14 in nine Southern African countries (Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe), in some countries, it was found that almost a fifth of children would shun or avoid children with HIV and a third felt that children with HIV should not be allowed to attend school.
You would be pleased to know that Malawian children reported less discrimination with 12 percent saying children with HIV should not be allowed to attend school and 8.2 percent shunning a friend who discloses they have HIV.
Across the countries, the researchers found that discriminatory attitudes were associated more with rural than urban children, poverty, having misconceptions about HIV transmission particularly that HIV can be transmitted by casual contact which was related to a lack of specific HIV education. Older children and girls tended to be slightly less likely to have discriminatory attitudes.
Understanding children’s attitudes towards HIV is important because stigma is associated with bullying, poor mental health, depression, isolation and victimisation.
Fear of stigma can affect a child’s desire to attend school or disclose their status. Moreover because of fear of discrimination, a caregiver is less likely to disclose a child’s HIV status to the child and this can lead to delayed care and treatment of HIV.
Therefore, understanding stigmatising attitudes among children as well as factors that can lead to discriminatory attitudes is important in developing programmes that can improve attitudes and hence experiences of children with HIV.
This study points toward the need for early interventions (grade six or before) to reduce stigma and discrimination among children, especially in schools in rural and poorer areas. In particular, interventions should aim to correct misconceptions that HIV can be transmitted via casual contact with people living with HIV.
Obviously school and education programmes have a role to play in correcting misconceptions but also as parents, relatives, older siblings we have a responsibility…because after all where do children get these misconceptions from?