In Guangdong, China's most populous province, some bold HIV-related policy decisions are about to come into play. In the wake of concerted advocacy efforts - including by UNAIDS, UNESCO and ILO - the province has announced it will abolish restrictions which prevent people living with HIV from working as teachers.
The policy changes, which will come into force in September, represent a shift from previous regulations, which excluded people living with HIV, as well as people who had been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection (STI), from serving as teachers in the province.
There are an estimated 50 000 to 80 000 persons living with HIV in the Guangdong Province. At the beginning of 2013, UNAIDS, UNESCO and ILO advocated jointly with the Guangdong education authorities for the removal of teaching restrictions for people living with HIV, after this regulation was being considered in a policy revision process. Subsequently, the Guangdong authorities responded that, following consideration of the feedback received on the issue, the regulatory Article which excluded people living with HIV and other STIs would be deleted.
Acting UNAIDS China Country Coordinator, Nana Kuo, underlined the significance of the changes. "This move by the Guangdong education authorities sets a positive example for the rest of China, and for the region as a whole," said Ms Kuo. "China has made tremendous progress in its AIDS response in recent years, and it is highly encouraging to see signs of concrete action to address stigma and discrimination, especially in the workplace."
According to national data, more than half the estimated 780 000 people living with HIV in China remain undiagnosed. Fear of discrimination is considered to be a major obstacle to access HIV testing, treatment and care services, particularly amongst marginalized populations. Across China, people living with HIV are excluded from employment in many sectors, including the country's civil service. An ILO study conducted in China in 2011 found that 65% of business owners felt that people living with HIV should not enjoy equal employment opportunities.
"We commend Guangdong's decision to remove employment restrictions that had excluded people with HIV from serving as teachers. We hope that this marks a step towards the removal of all remaining employment restrictions, whether in the public or the private sector, so that people with HIV are able to live full and productive lives, without fear of stigma and discrimination," said Ann Herbert, ILO Country Director for China.
In recent years, China has seen several high profile court cases filed by people denied of employment as teachers on the grounds of HIV status, but to date none of the cases has resulted in a clear legal victory. In many cases, this is linked to the fact that provincial education authorities have generally based teacher recruitment guidelines on national civil service recruitment guidelines, which exclude people living with HIV. In this context, the policy shift in Guangdong has particular significance. As one of the country's most prosperous and urbanized provinces, with a population of more than 100 million people, Guangdong is often considered to be at the vanguard of progressive policy making in China.
Meng Lin, the Coordinator of the China Alliance of People Living with HIV, underlined the significance of the developments in the Guangdong education recruitment policy. "When people know that a positive diagnosis may result in them being unable to find employment, or losing their job, they often prefer to just avoid getting tested. The move by the Guangdong Department of Education sends out the message that people living with HIV have the right to equal employment opportunities and that makes us hopeful for the future."