Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that African governments are failing to act to meet the education needs of children orphaned by AIDS.  The U.S.-based rights organization has issued a report, which also offers guidelines to governments.

Human Rights Watch says about four million children affected by AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa are no longer receiving an education.  They are among 12 million children orphaned by AIDS, whose parents are ill with AIDS, or who have the disease themselves.

In a report entitled Letting Them Fail: Government Neglect and the Right to Education for Children Affected by AIDS, the rights organization says it is part of a cruel logic that access to education is severely reduced among children affected by AIDS.  As a result, the report says, they are also more vulnerable to sexual exploitation, dangerous work or unemployment, as well as infection with HIV.

The report is the result of a study conducted in South Africa, Kenya and Uganda, where governments and communities have relied on a strong tradition of extended family care to those in need. 

But researcher Jonathan Cohen says that AIDS, which caused the death of two-point-two-million people in sub-Saharan Africa last year, has either decimated entire extended families, or stretched them beyond their ability to cope.  He said that governments in the region must now fill the gap.

"Governments now need to fill the void that has been left by the epidemic, and start guaranteeing children access to alternate parental care, which is their right," said Mr. Cohen.

Mr. Cohen, who wrote the report, says the governments can do this by creating foster-care systems where they do not exist, or where they do, such as in South Africa, getting rid of cumbersome formalities and bureaucracy. 

He says that in South Africa's KwaZulu/Natal province, only two percent of caregivers are receiving a foster grant, because of unnecessarily burdensome regulations and rules in signing up for it.

Mr. Cohen also says that free education or fee-waiver systems in these countries are failing to keep AIDS-affected children in school.  He says, where there are no fees, such as in Kenya and Uganda, children are turned away because they do not have school uniforms or books.  He says South Africa's fee-waiver system is too complicated to benefit those who need it most, such as orphans.

Mr. Cohen says governments are not doing enough to address these problems, not because they are overwhelmed by the extent of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, but because they lack the will to do so.

"Children are entitled to access to education without discrimination, and I think frankly that the reason governments have been so slow to wake up to this problem, and to address is that the 12.3 million orphans of AIDS in Africa are not people who can speak up for themselves very easily," he said.  "They are suffering quite silently, they are chronically vulnerable to having their needs overlooked, because they are children."

The report says that, while the study was only conducted in three countries, it has lessons for all countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where 25 million people are infected with the virus that causes AIDS.