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Fight AIDS With Education

July 12, 2004

More than 13.2 million children, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa, have lost one or both parents to AIDS. The problems they face make the orphans from a Charles Dickens novel look pampered; in addition to their inability to pay the price of government schooling, they are often treated as untouchables in countries where being the child of an AIDS victim is considered shameful.

Helping these orphans is one of the greatest challenges facing relief organizations and the international community. Doing so isn't just a humanitarian gesture; without education these children are more likely to repeat the mistakes of their parents and continue to spread the disease. Further, they add instability to impoverished nations already teetering on the brink of anarchy. Schooling would be their best bet, not just for education and contact with responsible adults but for access to any available social services and medical help.

The United States could help by linking foreign aid to school fees. Last month, the House passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) that would take a modest step toward that goal by requiring the president to develop transparent programs for "coordinating and implementing assistance programs for [AIDS] orphans." Unfortunately, the Senate has yet to schedule a vote on a similar measure by Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) or one by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) that matches Lee's.

Some of the nations where the number of orphan outcasts is rising fastest, such as Botswana, may need monetary assistance to waive school fees. But richer countries, particularly South Africa, have no excuse for still charging fees, especially when less wealthy nations such as Uganda and Rwanda, facing similar crises, have waived them for AIDS orphans. With or without congressional action, the Bush administration could certainly hint at trade consequences unless South Africa ends the practice.

None of the bills have much muscle, but in pressing the Bush administration to set up publicly accountable programs aimed at helping AIDS orphans, they pose a useful challenge to the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a five-year strategy for fighting global AIDS and HIV that the administration released this year. Although that plan recognizes AIDS orphans as a critical problem, it fails to detail any specific programs directed at them. The administration's resistance to establishing such programs has rightly perplexed many foreign affairs leaders in Congress.

Helping AIDS orphans is just one way to address a larger point that is likely to be stressed at an international AIDS conference that began Sunday in Bangkok, Thailand: that the war on AIDS can be won only with a fight on many fronts, not just by giving poor countries more cash to buy drugs but by better training health workers to teach prevention and fight related diseases such as tuberculosis. Every 14 seconds, another child is orphaned by AIDS. Congress can surely agree to help in the smallest way to address that glaring crisis.

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