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Several outraged AIDS activists in Tanzania have denounced some local school administrators for forcing HIV-positive students to wear special uniforms adorned with red ribbons, according to a BBC news report.

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Mohammed Lukema, the headmaster of Kibaha Primary School in the country’s largest city Dar es Salaam, claimed that some parents requested that infected students wear the red ribbons so that school officials know who aren’t able to do certain tasks such as sweeping or carrying water that may affect their health.

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Lukema told the BBC:

“Our school has pupils who are suffering from various diseases. The school and the society at large have decided to label pupils’ uniforms…In our school we put a red label on the pupils’ collars to identify them.”

However, activists warned that revealing someone’s HIV status without their consent is illegal and carries stiff jail sentences of up to three years for those found guilty of “outing” a person’s condition.

Since about 5% of the population, or about 1.4m people, in the East African nation are living with HIV, such stigmatization could have untold effects on those infected. There are about 200,000 under the age of 15 who are living with HIV/AIDS.

There are at least seven schools in Dar es Salaam that have implemented the labeling system.

Rebecca Mshumbusi, chairperson of the Kibaha Association of People Living with HIV/AIDS, is angered by the unethical practice. She told the BBC:

“The information of one’s sickness is confidential unless if one decides to share it with others. There are laws that can punish those revealing other’s health status.”

Jane Tibihita, a co-ordinator of Upendo Partnership, a local campaign group added that there have been few initiatives to educate people about the consequences of stigmatizing those with HIV.

“They are only dealing with infection and prevention of the disease. Now, the HIV and Aids Prevention and Control Act allows one with concrete evidence to be taken to court on the grounds of stigmatization and one can be sentenced for up to three years.”

The country’s health minister has said that he won’t comment until an investigation has been completed.

Still, one only has to look back at history to see other examples of similar labeling efforts. In Nazi concentration camps, there was a well-documented system of badges that prisoners were forced to wear. Those who were branded as homosexual had to wear an inverted pink triangle while Jewish students were forced to don a yellow star of David.

Tanzania school officials may be operating on a slippery slope of discrimination.


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Brett Johnson is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based writer and the founder of the music and culture blog