UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Sharmila Tagore on her two-day field visit to the Rajasthan meets HIV-infected children and gets to know how they are coping with the disease.
By Angela Walker
JAIPUR , India, 7 August 2009– When 14-year-old Guddu parents died from HIV/AIDS his two younger brothers found homes with his extended family.
Guddu was not so lucky. His family threw him out the house because he is infected with HIV, and today he lives in a care home supported by one of the HIV-AIDS Positive Network’s of Rajasthan.
“Schools and the community discriminate against us. We have to fend for ourselves,” says Guddu, who although 14 looks only about 10 in his stripy shirt scattered with the odd motorcycle and Harry Potter-style round glasses. “We should not be chucked out of our homes, because we have HIV/AIDS.”
Guddu told his story to Bollywood star and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Sharmila Tagore, who was on a two-day field visit to the state to see how those HIV-infected and affected are coping with the disease.
Tagore visited the care home operated and managed by women living with HIV/AIDS (WLHAs). The network, with more than 12,000 members operating in 26 state districts, was established in 2005 to confront widespread gender discrimination and violence affecting WLHAs.
“Orphans are the latest tragedy of HIV/AIDS,” Tagore told reporters at a press conference Friday at the end of her field trip. “When a child loses both parents to this disease they are thrown out of school, thrown out of their community. They become prey to illegal trafficking and child labour. We have an obligation to help them.”
Tagore met with the 10 children who live at the care home and student volunteers from St. Anselems School who give up their Sundays to tutor the children and take them out, including recently to the latest Harry Potter film.
“We don’t want them to be isolated,” explained Deepak Nagpal, 17, cuddling one of the young boys on his lap. “They feel very happy when we are with them. They feel a sense of belonging.”
“They treat us like elder brothers and sisters, not like strangers, and that is why we love to teach them,” added Rohit Vijay, 17. The student volunteers are also working to increase HIV awareness in their community through surveys and awareness campaigns. They sell their own handmade traditional blue pottery to help pay for their activities.
The network also provides services, like short-term shelter, counseling and legal aid, for women living with HIV, who are often ostracized by their families. Traditionally in India, widows have been perceived as bringing bad luck to the family. That perception was changing in modern India, and then HIV struck.
“Stigma and discrimination of widows existed before HIV came, but their mistreatment is now on the rise again,” said Ivonne Camoroni, Chief of HIV/AIDS at UNICEF India. “We need to support these women who are often rejected by their families.”
That’s what happened to Anita, a member of one of the positive networks. She was kicked out of her home by her in-laws after her husband, who worked in the army, died of the disease. Today, they raise her 12-year-old daughter.
“Women come to know their HIV positive status when their husbands die,” she says. “There is a lot of discrimination against people with HIV, women especially.”
Tagore says that Indian society must fight against the stigmatization of widows to make sure that their rights are protected.
”We must rehabilitate widows and give them legal assistance so they don’t lose their rights,” she urged. “They and their children must have access to education the same as any other child in this country.”
Rajasthan is considered a low prevalence state by NACO, the government’s HIV ministry. But the population is considered vulnerable because of its high percentage of migrant labour. The Government estimates that 50,000 people are living with HIV in Rajasthan.
Women often only find out about their HIV status when they are tested as part of their antenatal visit after having a baby.
“The problem is that the risk perception among men, women and young people is low,” Camaroni explained. “The feeling is it’s not very likely to happen to me. They are very vulnerable.”
Tagore visited the Prevention of Parent to Child Transfer Center (PPTCT) in Jaipur that sees on average 20-25 pregnant women daily who receiving HIV testing and counseling.
There are 131 PPTCT centers around the state, said R.K. Meena, Principal Secretary of Health and Family Welfare. “If someone tests positive, we take action,” he says.
During her visit to the center, Tagore met with an HIV positive couple whose child was born HIV free after receiving counseling at the center.
“I saw their happy, healthy 4-month old baby, which was so wonderful,” Tagore says. “Without counseling, that child may have been born with HIV. These interventions work.”
Rajasthan Health and Family Welfare Minister, Shri Aimaduddin Ahmed, said he appreciated the visit of the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. Tagore’s support, he says, will help to end the discrimination and encourage more people to get tested to know their HIV status.
“We have got a boost from your visit, and we will carry on after with taking this campaign forward,” he said.
Editors Note: Some names have been changed in this story to protect individuals’ privacy.
For more information:
Chief of Communication, UNICEF India
Communication Specialist, UNICEF India
Communication Officer- Media, UNICEF India