College slammed for HIV testing

A private Christian university in Nigeria has come under fire from activists and health officials over its policy of compelling students to undergo HIV and pregnancy tests.

Earlier this year, Covenant University, in Otta, a town near the port city of Lagos, in Ogun State, introduced mandatory testing for new students and those about to graduate, as part of its 'Total Man' concept. The university says this ensures that its graduates are not only academically sound but of high moral standard.

Pregnant students who cannot prove they are legally married risk suspension or expulsion. Covenant University - rated as the best private tertiary institution in Nigeria last year - implements a strict code of behaviour: all students have to live on the campus and, among other restrictions, are not allowed to use mobile phones.

"With the level of moral decadence in our society, the Covenant University is determined to ensure the purity of our graduates before they are released into the society. They must be found worthy both academically and morally," said Chancellor Bishop David Oyedepo, of Living Faith Church, which owns the university.

The controversial policy has caused an outcry among HIV/AIDS activists and government officials, who have warned that the move could be a setback in tackling the country's widespread problem of stigma and discrimination.

The country's licensing body for universities, the Nigerian University Commission (NUC), last week summoned Covenant University officials to clarify the policy, which the NUC says is unjustified.

Prof Ignatius Uvah, the NUC's deputy executive secretary, stressed that Covenant University was bound to respect national and international conventions on HIV/AIDS, which demand that tests should be voluntary. According to news reports, the Public Relations Officer of the NUC, Alhaji Ibrahim Yakassai, said the issue would be resolved "very soon"

The National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA) has also condemned the compulsory testing of students, saying that "in line with the national guideline for HIV/AIDS counselling and testing, the administration of HIV tests should be with the full consent of the individual involved, and it must be voluntary, confidential and offered only as a package that includes pre- and post-test counselling."

Though the University had earlier stated that negative HIV and pregnancy test results were a condition for graduation, its spokesman, Mr Emmanuel Igban, said the tests were a routine exercise to determine the health status of students.

"It is not true that anyone who tests positive for HIV/AIDS would be denied the opportunity to graduate, contrary to media reports," Igban said in a statement issued in response to growing condemnation of the university's policy.

Bisi Ladipo-Salami, of BAOBAB, a women's human rights activist group, described the compulsory testing as a violation of the students' rights, and maintained that there was no law prohibiting HIV-positive and/or pregnant students from graduating.

"We believe that the fundamental rights of all Nigerians, irrespective of religious affiliation, are non-negotiable, and demand an end to the infringement on the rights of the young people under any guise," she said.

Princess Olufemi-Kayode, Executive Director of advocacy group Media Concern for Women and Children, commended Covenant University for its efforts to ensure a high moral standard among its students.

However, she added that there was a need for better understanding of the human rights perspective on HIV/AIDS tests, because "the virus can be contracted through various means other than sex, which seems to be emphasis of the university."

Notwithstanding these criticisms, the chancellor believed that the students should be guided to protect them from possible HIV infection or unintended pregnancy, because in the past some students had been caught engaging in "reprehensible sexual activities".

"It is a very bad situation that requires every possible approach to ensure that we produce the kind of graduates that can guarantee a better future for this country," he said.

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