28 April 2007

Art helps Thai children heal the wounds of HIV

Story by Nattha Keenapan/ Video courtesy of We Understand Group

(Originally written for the The Nation newspaper)

CHIANG MAI, Thailand- The sound of children shouting “I can do!” echoes loudly inside the theater at Chiang Mai University’s Art Museum. As the lights dim and masks are donned by the children on the stage, they are ready to act out a drama that gives voice to the pain, fears and hopes they have as children living with HIV/AIDS in Thailand today.

The staging of the play, entitled “Who am I? Why am I here?”, marked the one-year anniversary of the drama’s first performance in Thailand, and it drew a standing room-only audience to the theatre. Most of the people in the audience, who ranged in age from toddlers to retirees, were not aware that they would be wiping away tears by the time of the final curtain.

“Do you dare to take off your mask?” one of the young actors asks the other HIV-positive children sharing the stage with her as the play gets underway. “Don’t you have an idea what people would to do us if they know who we are…what we have. We are not living with a terrible illness, but we are living in a terrible world.”

Children living with HIV deliver a touching drama performance on the discrimation they face in their lives.© UNICEF-Thailand/2006/M. Thomas
The performance was part of an on-going project that promotes creative activities for some 250 HIV-positive Thai children between the ages of 10 and 16. Initiated in 2003, the UNICEF-supported project uses drawing, painting, photography and drama to stimulate the children’s creative energies and build their confidence so that they can better deal with and hopefully overcome the discrimination they face in their daily lives.

“As people working with HIV-positive children, we find that there are two major problems that need to be addressed,” says Chutima Saisengjan, a coordinator for the We Understand Group, the non-government organization that runs the project.  “First, people in the society still don’t understand enough about HIV/AIDS. Secondly, children living with HIV/AIDS still suffer greatly from discrimination due to this lack of understanding. And we found that the arts could be used to address both.”
In Thailand, there are an estimated 20,000 children under the age of 18 living with HIV in Thailand. Several hundred more children are born with HIV each year, mainly to families in poor, rural communities. Despite numerous awareness raising and sensitization campaigns, rampant discrimination against HIV-positive children persists.

A 2006 national survey covering 43,000 households in showed that nearly 80 per cent of people in Thailand still have negative attitudes towards people living with HIV/AIDS. The survey, supported by UNICEF, found that many parents do not want their children to play with HIV-positive children because they mistakenly assume their children will be infected with the virus. As a result, many HIV-positive children are ostracized by their friends and sometimes even their families, and are often excluded from school and by their communities.

“We don’t want people to feel pity for these children,” Chutima says. “But we do want the children to be able to communicate their feelings and thoughts to society through art.”

Art therapy helps children affected by HIV/AIDS to express their emotions and show their talents.© UNICEF-Thailand/2006/Rob Few
It is through the children’s creative output that Chutima and her colleagues know they are definitely on the right track.
The children’s 50 paintings and photographic works exhibited at the art museum contain messages of both suffering and hope, and they powerfully convey the children’s feelings about living with HIV/AIDS and being shunned by others.

“The sunflower of brightness. Its leaves fall like my life that was hurt. I am discouraged. Why does it have to be this way?” wrote Nam*, a 12-year-old girl, in a caption describing her painting of a red sunflower with a small, lit candle at the flower’s centre.

Chutima says that as the children begin to express their emotions, they gradually also find courage and confidence in themselves. They find themselves capable of accomplishing many things that they believed they could never do before.  And it is this courage and confidence that plays a key role in the healing process.

“I feel that I love myself more,” says Aom, a 15-year-old girl. “In the past, I didn’t even want to wake up, I didn’t want to meet anyone. But now I can see my value. I can draw,  I can act, I can live with other people. I am encouraged every time I hear the audience applaud.  It makes me feel that they understand me more”.

The show in Chiang Mai was the children’s eighth performance. They also performed in May 2006 in Bangkok for Nane Annan, the wife of then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and a group of other high-level officials and dignitaries.  Mrs. Annan was so moved by the children’s performance that she arranged for a film of the play and another film featuring the children to be screened at the XVI International AIDS conference in Toronto, Canada, last year. In July, the children will stage their final performance of the drama for Prime Minister Surayud Julanont at the National AIDS Conference in Bangkok.

Chutima and others who work with the children have seen marked changes in their behaviour as the project has progressed. The children have become livelier as well as more talkative and playful. They are no longer afraid to speak their minds.  The dialogue in the play serves to remind both them and their audiences that although they carry the HIV virus in their blood, they are no different from other children.

The children’s growing confidence in themselves is reflected by the way in which they now end the play. While many of the children were very reluctant to remove their masks at the end of some of the earlier performances, they now take them off without hesitation and face the audience, ready to answer any questions that they pose. 

In answering one question from the audience, 15-year-old Yo stresses that living with HIV has made her “become a more responsible and organized person. You know why? Because I have to remember to take my medicine at the same time every day.”

Next year the project will expand to some 90 children across the country, including children from southern Thailand, where HIV rates are on the rise.  A new drama will be developed, and it is expected to be livelier given the larger number of children involved and the fact that the children will be more involved in writing the dialogue and stage direction.

“They have proven that they can do it,” says Panda Thapanangkun, the project’s drama teacher. “HIV/AIDS is not an obstacle to learning. Instead, the pressures they feel in their lives are helping to motivate them to perform and to communicate their lives to the world.”

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