THERE is delight for any prospective student who reads the word “scholarship” within a box advert in our local newspapers.
You read with interest what field the scholarship is for and you quickly run your eyes over the ‘application requirements’ to see whether you have a chance for this opportunity to study outside Namibia, usually in a country with greater academic resources. When you realise you lack a certain criterion to apply, it encourages you to work harder and improve your points in grade 12, to get your honours or work assiduously for one more year so your boss will write that star recommendation letter. But what if you are HIV positive and the application requires you to submit ‘a complete health examination, including an HIV test?’ There is no way for you to change this about yourself and is it fair they imply you need to be negative to qualify?
The closing date for one such scholarship for the People’s Republic of China (The Namibian, 13th April) was 20th of April 2012. I did not apply for this scholarship, even though I am looking to further my studies and I believe I meet all the requirements.
I refuse to submit an HIV test with my application. I have already benefited from a scholarship from one of the United World Colleges, where a number of prominent Namibians received their final years of schooling including NBC Director General Albertus Aochamub, and I also obtained a scholarship to do my bachelor degree at Princeton University in United States. In both cases, I only did my medical examination – including the HIV test – after I had secured the scholarship. Would I have still been offered these opportunities had my HIV test result come out positive? I am not sure, since in 2003 the US still had a travel ban on HIV positive people that has since been repealed. However, would it have been justifiable to prevent me from studying at these places because of my HIV status? I hope you can answer that for yourself by end of this piece.
In 1985 thirteen year old Ryan White was expelled from his school in Indiana, United States, because of his HIV status, but his family sued the school and he was eventually permitted to return. The greatest tragedy is that White and his family suffered verbal abuse and a near fatal shooting at their house, all because the residents of their town were ignorant and wrongly perceived Ryan as a threat.
This young man, however, went on to change the face of AIDS in the US and show their nation that HIV positive teenagers can still go to school and have dreams like any other child, and this was before the dawn of ART. Had this treatment been available to him, perhaps Ryan would lived past the age of 18 and gone to university.
In Namibia children and young people living with HIV have access to life prolonging therapy to HIV and perhaps it is time for an HIV positive applicant to challenge the constitutionality of scholarships with this ‘HIV test’ eligibility criterion.
One could argue that a scholarship, unlike access to school, is a privilege and not a right. However, giving HIV negative persons the privilege of accessing this scholarship at the expense of HIV positive persons is a discriminatory privilege, akin to sexism, ableism (the assumption that only people living without any ostensible disabilities should have access to opportunities) and of course racism.
I surely hope no one out there is under the mistaken belief that it is not worth investing in an HIV positive child. Educate yourself! Listen to the HIV clinicians in Namibia speak about the life prolonging antiretroviral therapies, listen to the scientists who showed that this treatment can also work as HIV prevention and finally listen to HIV orphans who will tell you, through song and dance, about their aspirations.
So much of my efforts goes into find and applying for scholarships. This time I sublimated those energies, because I am not just a potential epidemiologist – who studies how many people have HIV and how they acquired it – but I am also a writer, an activist, a human being.