AIDS is redefining the very meaning of childhood for millions, depriving children of many of their human rights - of the care, love and affection of their parents; of their teachers and other role models; of education and options for the future; of protection against exploitation and abuse. The world must act now, urgently and decisively, to ensure that the next generation of children is AIDS-free.
- UNICEF, A Call to Action: Children, the Missing Face of AIDS.
Patricia Watson, Contributor
There are hundreds of children in Jamaica living with or affected by HIV. In January 2007, 5,125 children under the age of 15 were estimated to have been orphaned by AIDS. In 2006, 73 children aged zero to nine years old were diagnosed with HIV. Many of these children live and play in your neighbourhood, go to your church and attend your school. They are, however, forced to be silent about the disease they live with out of fear related to how persons will react. They also fear the discrimination they and their families would face if they revealed their status.
HIV/AIDS has a deep impact on every aspect of their lives - emotional, social, spiritual, physical and economic. Children infected or affected by HIV are rarely heard but, despite the silence, they have much to say about childhood, children's rights, parenting, family life, sexual and reproductive health issues, the Church and AIDS, and employment for people living with HIV.
Children and HIV/AIDS
Children living with HIV/AIDS in Jamaica have, in general, been silent about issues affecting them. Their opinions are rarely sought in the development of policies and programmes which have an impact on their lives. Even when they take part in consultations, they feel this participation is merely tokenistic. Up to 20,000 children in Jamaica are estimated to have been made vulnerable by HIV. Overall, five to seven per cent of all orphans in Jamaica are orphaned by HIV/AIDS, according to the Ministry of Health.
The Rapid Assessment of the Situation of Orphans and Other Children living in Households Affected by HIV/AIDS in Jamaica (2002) highlights the many economic, social and emotional problems faced by these children, including increased vulnerability of those whose parents are ill or have died; lack of psychosocial support to help them cope with their parents' illness or death, or their own HIV-positive status; stigmatisation in schools, churches, children's homes and the wider community; and the challenges facing HIV-positive children who are in institutional care.
Recent focus group discussions by the Panos Caribbean Institute revealed some concerns facing children infected with or affected by HIV. Younger participants identified the following as adults' actions which make them unhappy: "They call us names", "They scorn us", "They call us AIDS victim", "They make us feel that we are not important", "They chase us out of the community".
Older participants said adults' actions which make them unhappy include discrimination from persons who should know better; violence, insults and threats; stress; lack of access to services and medicines; shame and guilt, and lack of family and community support.
The Special Delivery initiative was born out of the issues which these children identified and their desire to highlight these issues to the wider society. Children understand childhood best - they live it. Children infected and affected by HIV/AIDS know their situation best and can guide others to respond to their greatest needs. People will listen when children speak. Children can bring much more than emotion to the issue of HIV/AIDS - they can bring information and solutions. Providing them with the information and skills required to speak for themselves is an important component of the advocacy process.
Over the coming weeks, children living with HIV, supported by Panos Caribbean and The Gleaner Company, will be delivering letters advocating for positive change on the issues they have identified to influential movers and shakers in Jamaica. Letters will be delivered to the Prime Minister and other government leaders, heads of development agencies and the media.
Feel free to raise your voice on the issues identified by the young people and to voice your opinion on the initiative. Responses from leaders and from other members of society will also be highlighted in The Gleaner.
Patricia Watson is regional director, Panos, a non-governmental international organisation.