Turbulent times for students but also positive progress across SA campuses

 South African students have seen turbulent times in recent months, yet along with these challenges there has been significant positive change.

While the recent #FeesMustFall campaign, campus unrest at universities around the country and this week’s protests against frequent rape at universities have justifiably made news headlines, a campaign to highlight HIV awareness including gender issues, violence, rape and student health and welfare in general has been making significant strides.

This was revealed in Parliament this past week when the Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Training Mduduzi Manana had two special guests during the annual Department of Higher Education and Training budget speech: the house was introduced to two young women, Unathi and Sithokozile, whose moving stories illustrate the accomplishments of the Higher Education and Training HIV/AIDS Programme (HEAIDS), which the Deputy Minister champions.

“I call on HEAIDS to lead our post-school sector and all role players to strengthen protection of women and work to eliminate violence and sexual abuse,” Deputy Minister Manana emphasised during his speech.

Despite protests and other challenges, HEAIDS last year worked with hundreds of campuses to successfully host HIV testing and health screening and education activations under the banner of First Things First.

Introduced to the higher education sector in 2011, First Things First has become the vehicle that is mobilising youth to remain healthy and to know their HIV status as the springboard for maintaining their health and completing tertiary education. The programme roots itself in the education sector’s mandate to produce competent graduates able to meet the country’s development challenges and objectives.

“Regardless of the outcome of their HIV test, TB or any other ailment, students now in the post-school sector know there are tools and services for them to stay healthy so they can work hard, complete their studies, stand on their own feet in the workplace and society, and nurture their own families,” HEAIDS Director Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia said.

When students know their HIV status, test positively for other STIs or have TB symptoms, they are referred for counselling and treatment which is available either through the campus clinics or via a referral network to other clinics. This is sometimes the first point of help for rape survivors.

“Our efforts must be to reach out to every student in the post school sector and we must do everything in our power to prevent what happened at Rhodes from happening again. But looking at the story of Sithokozile who was acknowledged in Parliament by the Deputy Minister; who is a sexual abuse survivor, our education system must be in such a way that our students have easy access to PEP, HIV/AIDS counselling; trauma counselling and help for any other health challenges they may encounter. This would enable them get back into the system and complete their studies,” continued Dr Ahluwalia.

 He said HEAIDS’ successes were best borne out by the real-life experiences of students, like Unathi Bheme and Sithokozile Gcabashe.

 “Their stories provide qualitative evidence of the potential impact that this programme has on the lives of other 174 000 young students who got tested through the HEAIDS First Things First during 2015.

“Students’ testimonies tell us about them taking their first HIV test and learning their HIV status through First Things First activations on campus and how this enabled them to take control of their lives and health,” said Dr Ahluwalia.

Scrutiny of HEAIDS’s performance should not overlook measurable progress in terms of building capacity among academic staff to develop and deliver HIV content through curricula offered by different faculties and disciplines – many of which had until 2014 never tackled HIV- and health-related issues.

“As HEAIDS, we support wholeheartedly call for gender and sexual violence to be addressed as an urgent national priority. Doing this through the academic programme will give us the reach and sustainability that the grave situation demands,” he urged.

“The fact that these latest protests are led by women students makes it clear that gender relations are a burning issue but also that women are finding their confidence and voice. As partners in student wellness, HEAIDS will use its gender-focused programmes and links with role-players to contribute to solutions,” concluded Dr Ahluwalia.