This development is regrettable, regressive, archaic and a clear cut case of human rights abuse. The right to education and the right to non-discrimination are fundamental and should not be given away.
Testing prospective students will naturally compound the already high levels of stigma and discrimination of people living with HIV, as identified in the Botswana’s Second National Strategic Framework as one of the drivers of HIV transmission. I urge the National AIDS Coordinating Agency (NACA) to stand up and intervene as clearly the left hand of government is unaware of what the right hand is doing.
Assuming that this requirement is imposed by the host countries, Botswana should engage them on policies, laws and best practices that are tested, both locally and internationally. UNAIDS has called on nations to remove travel barriers and it is for Botswana to take this up and challenge other countries to do better. Most of the countries with such travel restrictions have limited knowledge or are even misinformed about HIV and AIDS. A lot of capacity building is needed and Botswana can play a part in bridging the gap.
But I do have words of caution for my government. You need to gain credibility back home before you start talking to the world. You lack credibility in that no foreigner gets employed in the public service without going through an HIV test and should test negative. This is discrimination of the highest degree and must be met by the necessary criticism and condemnation. I am not saying the government should employ foreigners who are terminally ill but I am rather saying HIV status by itself should not be a determining factor in assessing whether or not to employ someone, be it a Motswana or a foreigner. It needs to be emphasized that this practice is contrary to the Public Service Act that speaks against discrimination on the basis of health. In essence, our government is violating our laws.
Reverting to the issue of testing, I am taken aback by the revelation that the United States of America requires a negative HIV status to access it. To the best of my knowledge, as far back as January 2010, America revoked legislation that prevented HIV positive people from entering it. This position was this week confirmed by the US Embassy in Botswana when it distanced itself from the media reports in point. We therefore need to ask ourselves where this misleading information came from. Was the government taking chances and hoping we don’t know what obtains in America? Or was the US taking chances and hoping Batswana, especially the media and the civil society won’t pick the issue up and make noise about it? Only the respective authorities know where the truth lies.
I have heard arguments to the effect that our government is sometimes helpless because the conditions are imposed by the host nations, especially the nations that give us scholarships for free. My answer is, whether or not we are receiving scholarships as aid, we cannot and should not sell the soul of Batswana in exchange of aid. Are we that desperate? Are we saying the human rights of our people are less important than aid? If countries can shun blood diamonds, why can’t we shun intrusive aid? It is an affront to our humanity and dignity. It therefore appears we are recipients of bad aid and I find it difficult to fathom why we want to discriminate prospective students on the basis of their HIV status to acquire education. HIV positive status is not criminal and should not be treated as such. We therefore call upon government to retreat now from its intended move if we are to achieve the Vision 2016 goals of an educated, moral and tolerant nation.