Patricia Watson, Features Co-ordinator
EARLY THIS year, I met a young boy, three years old, whose parents died as a result of AIDS. He was a handsome little one, full of life and vigour. He was obviously the sunshine in the home in which he lived with his many adopted siblings and care givers.
Everyone seemed to know this child as the Sunday after meeting him, I heard someone at my church talking about him and on another occasion, his name was also mentioned. He seemed to have that ability to touch people, but despite his charm, people appeared afraid to take him out of the situation in which he lived and give him a proper home. That is until Peter Reidmet him.
The connection between the two was immediate. You could see it in his eyes, when he spoke about the little boy. I must admit, I kept looking in his eyes to see if it was just pity he felt for this child. A child whose parents were taken away from him by AIDS and whose relatives refuse to have anything to do with him, despite the fact he has been testing negative for HIV.
But when he spoke of the child, his face came alive and it was as if it didn't matter about his background, his parents or that the next HIV test he does, something might show up. It was obvious this child was precious, that he loves him unconditionally. When he took the child home, I gained new respect for this individual.
Here was a man, who basically had little experience with children infected or affected by AIDS, who was able to open his heart to one child. His obvious love for this little boy seemed to have overpowered whatever fears he may have regarding HIV. I tried to caution him, that he needed to get some professional counselling, before actually taking the child for the holidays, but he dismissed it stating that I could help him if he needed it. Within a day of taking him home, the child was calling him 'Daddy' and his wife 'Mommy'.
His face shone even more when he spoke of "his" little boy. He showed that in all the mess that HIV can create, there is some hope. That there are people out there who are able to look beyond the present circumstances and make children affected or infected by HIV live happy and fulfilling lives. As it stands now, things can only get better for this beautiful child.
Today, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS estimate that 13 million children under age 15 have lost one or both parents to AIDS, most of whom are in sub-Saharan Africa. A significant number of them live in state homes as relatives are afraid to touch them, to hug them, even though they may not carry the virus. By 2010, this figure is expected to jump to 25 million as the AIDS epidemic takes the lives of more parents.
Sub-Saharan Africa has the largest number of orphans. Twelve per cent of children in the region have lost one or both parents to AIDS; in Asia, this number stands at 6.5 per cent and five per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean. According to Children on the Brink 2002, in the absence of HIV/AIDS, the number of children orphaned in general would be on the decline due to improvements in mortality rates for adults in child-bearing years.
In Jamaica, it is estimated that 5,000 children are either orphaned or currently live with parents who are HIV-positive. As parents go through the different stages of the disease, many of these children have to grow up quickly and assume adult roles, which break your heart when you listen keenly to the way they talk about life in general. It is a constant battle for survival for many of these children. A significant number of them have to deal with a decline in access to proper food, basic health care, housing and clothing. Some are forced to watch helplessly as parents are hounded out of their communities or home.
The trauma and hardships faced by these children, right here in Jamaica, are difficult to quantify. Many find it difficult to relax and be kids, they have to be constantly finding things to do, eating just enough not to starve, even if the food is plentiful. They are so used to saving a little piece for tomorrow, just in case, there is no food and their parent/s might be hungry later.
No child should have to worry about where his next meal is coming from. No child should have to witness his or her parent/s being discriminated against by community people. To watch his/her parent hang her head in shame as neighbours taunt her and accuse her. No child should have to go to school and other students tease her because her parent is HIV-positive. No child should have to be forced not to love his/her parent because he/she is positive and the status makes life difficult for her.
Bearing the pain
Charlotteis a beautiful 12-year-old girl. Her mother has AIDS and both live in rural Jamaica. When Charlotte first learnt of her mother's status, Mom Angellasaid for weeks she refused to go out even into the yard. She would cower behind the door, peeping out once in a while. She refused to go to school, because she was ashamed, fearful, confused and disappointed by the way people who were supposed to be friends treated her and her mother. Today, although all is not well, Charlotte has got the courage to go to school.
"I'm getting to hate here (Parish) now. It's boring and I don't like school. The teachers are always miserable with me and the students always roughing me up," Charlotte explained.
She recently took her GSAT examination and is hoping that she is successful as she really wants to leave the school she is at and start off afresh.
"I don't really worry about my mother having AIDS now. But sometimes I feel sad, especially when the kids trouble me about it. They always tease me that 'yu mother have AIDS and you have it too'. I don't cry when they tell me that, but sometimes I would really want to cry," Charlotte said.
Surviving the struggle
Living with a parent who has AIDS, Charlotte said, is quite normal.
"We do things together like any normal people. We go out together and so forth. (But) I am scared that I will lose her. I love my mommy a lot and I feel sad when I see her cry or when I can't help her. This morning, she had just $10 and she give it to me for lunch money. Sometimes, she has to do without food, because we don't have any money," she explained sadly.
Charlotte's mother currently does not work and depends to a large extent on the $1,000 she gets from the Parish AIDS Committee. Both Charlotte and herself are, therefore, at the mercy of friends who give her money once in a while, but most of it is used to pay bills and buy medication. Today, they get water from a neighbour as they were unable to pay the water bill.
Angella tearfully explained to Outlook that she is afraid to die.
"I worry about her. I don't want to die, I'm afraid to die, because I don't know what will happen. I just need somewhere to live right now and maybe the stress will lessen. Right now, I can hardly find money to buy food and clothes. When I was working, I could buy food, clothes, pay my bills, now I can't do that.
"I had to give her the last $10 I had this morning and go without food all day. I am so hungry and I can't afford to lose anymore weight."
She pointed out that now that everybody in the community knows about her status, whenever they tease Charlotte, she tells them to "tell your parents not to try to get it, because it's not nice."
When asked what she would like people to know about her mother, Charlotte quickly stated "I wouldn't be able to say. I wouldn't want to tell anybody about her, I couldn't do that." When pressed further, she explained that based on the way people who are HIV-positive are treated, she was unable, even to imagine what to tell people about her mother. It is something she never thinks about.
The silver lining
But, despite the hardships, Charlotte said HIV has its positives.
"I've got to know her a whole lot better. We share a lot of things."
A few hours with Charlotte can reveal a great deal. Her mood swings from one extreme to the next. At one point she will be extremely happy and talkative and at another time she will look very sad a far-away look in her eyes, hands on her jaw. It is difficult to pry from her, what she is feeling and one can only assume it's the myriad of problems her family faces that is taking its toll at that particular time. It could be sadness over the status of her mother, fear that she will die and what the future holds for her, or it could be that she is worried about how she and her mother will survive the next day. Whatever the problems, the distress is obvious.
At 12 years old, Charlotte has suffered exclusion, abuse, discrimination and stigma. She has experienced material hardships, dropped out of school for a while, has witnessed her mother struggle to provide food and health care for the family and she has had to learn to care for her mother when she is ill.
Next week, we will look at some of the trends as it regards orphans recorded by the United Nations Children Fund, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS and the United States Agency for International Development. We will also examine some of the strategies in place or that can be utilised to make life a bit easier for children orphaned by HIV/AIDS.