03 December 2013

Children and adolescents living with HIV bear stigma

This article was published in Bangkok Post newspaper on 30 November 2013.

Mix (not her real name), a transgender adolescent who was born with HIV, grew up feeling unwanted by her family.
Story by Heamakarn Sricharatchanya
Photos by Metee Thuentap

Unlike many children who have fond memories of their childhoods, Mix*, a transgender adolescent who was born with HIV, said the early part of her life was one of her saddest times.

Mix grew up feeling unwanted by her family. Her parents died when she was young, so she had to live with an aunt who did not understand that the HIV virus is not easily spread to other people. As a result, Mix was not allowed to sit at the dinner table at meal times, nor was she allowed to share objects such as plates, spoons and forks. When neighbours found out about her HIV status from her aunt, they stopped their children from playing with her.

“The world was not beautiful to me,” Mix, now 21, said. “I hated everyone, including my parents who made me like this.”
Mix has only revealed that she has the virus to one person – a long-time friend.

“If I tell others, I’m afraid no one will want to be friends with me.  I’m afraid they won’t want to eat with me or hang out with me anymore, and could just walk out of my life forever,” she said, adding that some of her friends still believe that the HIV virus can be spread through saliva.

Supatra Nacapew, director of the Foundation of AIDS Right
“Stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV, including children and teenagers, persist in society,” said Supatra Nacapew, director of the Foundation for AIDS Rights, and member of the Human Rights Committee under the Lawyers Council of Thailand. The Foundation for AIDS Rights accepts complaints from people living with HIV who believe their rights have been violated, including the rights to an education and to find work.

Last year, for example, three nursing undergraduate students were asked to leave their respective universities when they were found to be HIV positive. The Foundation for AIDS Rights has filed a case on behalf of one the students with the Administrative Court.

“Many children living with HIV find their educational opportunities limited because of discrimination,” Supatra said. “This starts as early as pre-school and extends through to primary and secondary school. Teachers may tell friends of children with HIV to not play with them because it is dangerous. Some even suggest that the parents of these children keep them at home and not [let them] come to school.”

There are cases of this happening all over the country, including in Bangkok, she added.

Chutima Saisaengjan

Discrimination against people living with HIV stems from the fact that there are still many people who do not fully understand the virus, said Chutima Saisaengjan, coordinator of a model project on antiretroviral adherence and positive prevention for adolescents at four sites across Thailand. This has created many mistaken perceptions about people with HIV, including that they can easily spread the virus, or die so young that there is no point in them going to school or finding work, she said.

“This has caused children and adolescents to stigmatise themselves,” Chitima said. “Stigma and discrimination lead these children to think badly about themselves, to lose hope and not want to live.”
Chutima said that the pattern of stigma and discrimination has changed from the past. It has shifted from being aggressive and overt to being far more subtle. Ten years ago, villagers would stage public protests against schools that allowed children with HIV to attend. Now the students’ parents tell teachers to ask HIV-infected children to stay at home, or suggest that these children be educated at home instead.

Robert Gass, Chief of HIV/AIDS for Unicef Thailand, cited recent research confirming that stigma and discrimination remain a problem in Thailand. According to the findings of the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS), a major survey of 28,000 households nationwide carried out in 2012 by the National Statistical Office with support from UNICEF, 40 per cent of women aged 15-49 years said they would not buy fresh vegetables from a shopkeeper or vendor who has HIV/AIDS.  In addition, the survey found that 30 per cent of the population, or almost one in three people, believe that a teacher with HIV should not be allowed to educate children, even if she is not visibly ill.

Although stigma and discrimination remain issues in Thai society, Supatra is optimistic that the situation will improve. She believes that zero discrimination against people living with HIV will be a reality one day, although she does not know when.

“This cannot be changed overnight,” she said. “Stigma and discrimination are about values, culture and beliefs, which were instilled long ago, so I cannot say when they will end. But we have to start doing something about them and continue doing it until this situation changes.”

What needs to be done, she said, is to encourage people to respect the rights and dignity of others, to not look down on other people and to treat everyone equally so people can enjoy living in society together.

Gass noted that reduction in stigma can be achieved through several methods. This includes helping teachers and health-care workers to become more sensitive towards those with HIV, as they play an important role in expanding the understanding of the wider community. In addition, political leaders should be encouraged to publicly support HIV/AIDS awareness and understanding so that the public sees they are on the side of those affected by HIV.

He added that government needs to ensure that HIV prevention is accessible to those at risk, and that treatment is widely available to those already infected so that their health does not prevent them from receiving an education or seeking employment. Finally, it is important to give adolescents with HIV a voice, which makes them more visible and helps the public to recognize they are just like any other children, with similar hopes and dreams for their future.

“I would like to ask society to understand that anyone can be sick,” said Mix. “Why is it that people who have cancer or diabetes can walk down the street and no one discriminates against them? Why is it that they can they tell their friends that they are sick and we cannot?

“I would like to call on everyone to think in a positive way about people living with HIV. We can live together in society if we are given a chance.”

*not real name

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