JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) – Governments, schools and communities are turning their backs on the education needs of children affected by AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, an international rights organization said Monday.

More than 12 million children have lost one or both parents to AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, and more than a third of them are not in school, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report. The group said lack of education puts children at risk of sexual exploitation, unemployment and hazardous labor – as well as becoming infected with HIV themselves.

“It is part of the cruel logic of the AIDS epidemic that when parents become sick or die, it reduces their children’s access to education, which in turn makes them more vulnerable to HIV,” the report said. “Governments must do far more to break this cycle.”

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to more than 25 million of the nearly 40 million people around the world infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. More than 2.2 million people died of AIDS-related illnesses in the region in 2004 – most of them parents.

When Kenneth Kyambadde’s father died three years ago in Uganda, he was left responsible for three of his 10 siblings. The children take turns going to school based on how much money the 17-year-old can scrape together selling fuel on the black market.

Now his mother is also ailing and Kyambadde wonders if he will ever graduate from university, where he is studying accounting.

“I am going through this nightmare and I do not know whether I will succeed, and yet I cannot leave my helpless mother alone,” the solemn, wide-eyed youth told The Associated Press. “I am a child as well as a parent and there is nothing I can do about it.”

The 57-page Human Rights Watch report was based on interviews with dozens of children affected by AIDS and their caregivers in South Africa, Kenya and Uganda in June.

It found that many children are dropping out of school to care for terminally ill parents and younger siblings. Some are forced to work long hours to make up for lost family income.

Children who are themselves infected miss long periods of school because of poor health, inadequate access to treatment and fear of stigma. The taunts of their peers also discourage them from discussing their difficulties with teachers.

South Africa, Kenya and Uganda do not officially exclude children who cannot afford to pay school fees. However, children in all three countries told researchers they were turned away by schools because they did not have the money for other expenses – such as uniforms and textbooks – or could not produce documents proving they were eligible for free tuition.

In addition, few schools provide support to children caring for sick parents or coping with deaths. Most institutions simply accept it when emotionally scarred children fall behind or drop out of school, the report said.

Vuyiswa Peter, a 14-year-old South African, already lost one year of school when her mother died eight years ago. In August, her father also died. Her grandmother cannot afford to pay her school fees, and she worries she won’t be allowed to take exams next month.

“Sometimes I feel like crying,” the shy girl said, tugging nervously at her knee socks. “It seems like I am useless to (others) when they look at me.”

South Africa has taken steps to place needy children in foster care and issue them grants, but AIDS has overwhelmed the system, and these benefits are only reaching a tiny fraction of those who need them, the report said. In Kenya and Uganda, there is no comparable system to care for orphans.

All three governments rely heavily on over-stretched extended families, faith-based organizations and other groups to fulfill this role – in some cases exposing children to abuse by unregulated and ill-intentioned caregivers, the report said.

Uganda’s information minister, James Nsaba Buturo, acknowledged the difficulties keeping children in school but said Human Rights Watch should also recognize the financial constraints faced by African governments.

The report’s author, Jonathan Cohen, urged governments to review legislation and school policies to ensure no child is turned away for lack of money, and alternate parental care is provided to those who need it.


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