- The Washington Times - Monday, August 20, 2001

BANGUI, Central African Republic — Nadine Igala stared straight ahead as she described the fate of her friend at Miskine High School on the outskirts of Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic.
At age 15, with hopes of living in Paris, her friend was diagnosed as HIV-positive.
"She caught it from one of the teachers. Lots of girls sleep with their teachers. They do it to pass exams," Nadine said with a shrug.
Two of Rita Asana's school friends died of AIDS. They were just 17.
"You might get favoritism, but you get a bad reputation," she said, ignoring the greater problem of HIV infection.
Five girls at Miskine High School, which has 4,000 students, died last year from AIDS. Although teachers say it is impossible to know from whom the pupils contracted the virus, they suspect that staff members spread the disease.
"Girls often come to school without eating and without proper clothing," said Francoise Nboma, head of the English department. "They see their teacher as someone to help them. Many parents want their daughters to marry teachers, so they encourage their children to have relationships with them, and the staff don't refuse."
AIDS is the leading cause of death among teachers in the Central African Republic, according to UNICEF, which studied the deaths of 300 teachers around the country last year and found that 85 percent had died from AIDS.
Research by the Joint U.N. Program on AIDS suggests that by 2005 between 25 percent and 50 percent of all teachers in the country will have died from AIDS.
Frightening as these statistics are in themselves, they have even wider repercussions for the society.
"The average age of female sexual activity is 15, and their first partner is often their teacher," said Adjibad Karimou of UNICEF's office in Bangui. "The very people upon whom we rely to teach pupils how to protect themselves against AIDS are often the ones passing on the virus."
Even primary-school children have contracted the virus from their teachers. In some villages, HIV infection is cited as the main reason female pupils fail to finish their education.
Male students have not encountered the same problem because they usually bribe their teachers with beer and cigarettes rather than with sex.
Many teachers say they wish they could prevent relationships between pupils and staff, but they say the practice is ingrained in the educational system.
At the University of Bangui, a number of female undergraduates have contracted the virus from their tutors.
"In certain courses, if a female student is beautiful, she won't stand a chance of graduating unless she sleeps with her professor," said literature student Oliver Nyirabugara.
Safe-sex campaigns are rare in the high schools. Rather than offering education programs, the Health Ministry concentrates the AIDS spending in its meager budget of $7 million on treating infected members of the working population and pregnant women with HIV to prevent them from passing the virus to their newborn children.
More than 13 percent of the population between ages 17 and 30 is thought to carry the virus that causes AIDS, according to the Ministry of Health. In certain sectors, the figures are much higher; more than 70 percent of soldiers are believed to be HIV-positive.
U.N. agencies estimate that it would cost $12 million to $17 million to curb the spread of HIV infection and to care for victims. Although the rate of infection in the Central African Republic pales in comparison with South Africa, where nearly 25 percent of adults are HIV-positive, it exceeds the rates of surrounding countries.
Although the connection between teachers' and students' deaths from AIDS is no secret, the government would be hard-pressed to dismiss teachers or professors, because of huge staffing shortages.
The death of so many teachers from AIDS led to the closure of 107 educational establishments bet-ween 1996 and 1998, and the remaining schools have had to merge classes in order to handle all the abandoned students. Last year, Miskine High School saw the death of the history, German, biology and geography teachers from the virus.
"Every year, we're seeing three or four teachers die of AIDS. Classes are now in excess of 150 pupils, and teachers are working longer hours," said Patrice Tolmbaye, headmaster of the school.
With half the country's teaching posts empty, only 60 percent of the Central African Republic's children are receiving an education. Finding new staff is nearly impossible.
Teachers and professors are paid only about $100 a month, when they are paid at all. Because the government is strapped for cash, they are now owed 25 months' salary.


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