Munni, 8, has no place to call home. Her mother died of tuberculosis and her father committed suicide. Thereafter she went to live with her maternal grandmother and uncle. She fell ill and the doctor advised a blood test - a test that altered the entire course of her young life. When the results showed her to be HIV+, her guardians drove her out. She had already been orphaned; now she was abandoned too. Munni is now in a rehabilitation home in Kolkata along with 15 other children like her. The home is run by Sanlaap, an NGO engaged in the rehabilitation of trafficked women.
Munni's story is not an isolated instance. There are thousands of Munnis who suffer a similar kind of ostracism. Children generally contract the virus in two ways: In some cases, it has been transmitted from their mothers; in others, it is a result of trafficking.
Rahima, 16, was taken from her Tollygunge home in Kolkata to Mumbai when she was 14, with promise of a lucrative job. She left her son with her mother and left to work in a beer bar. From there to the Sanlaap home in Kolkata was a journey filled with torture, shame and harassment. Her mother refused to take her back because she is now HIV+ and sent her son away so that Rahima could not meet him.
"I think my mother refuses to take me in because I can't give her any money. I will write a letter to my sister. Whether she wants to accept me or not is up to her, but as a sister I want to know her well-being," Rahima said. A few minutes later, she says, "I think the slum where my mother lived has been demolished. That is why she can't take me back." She is living in self-denial, which is one the ways that these traumatized teenagers try to cope with the tragedy.
The other girls are, however, more resigned to their fate. "I know I am HIV+ and I know that people will discriminate against me for that. My parents come here to meet me and I have been trying to make them understand. I have not been successful as yet but I am hoping that I will. I might pretend that I am merely suffering from cold and cough but that will not take away the truth," said a pragmatic Usha,16, who was rescued from a brothel in Varanasi.
HIV+ children are dogged by discrimination at every step. If not their parents and neighbors, it is their teachers or doctors who turn away from them. "It is very difficult with children as they innocently divulge their status. The last time that happened, there was a huge furor among the patients and nurses. They wanted a screen to separate the child from the general patients. Nowadays we ask the children to keep quiet about their positive status," said Srabosti Majumdar, counselor at Sanlaap.
However, HIV activists do not recommend a separate home for HIV+ children despite the fact that they are singled out. They say that segregation will only make the distinction starker. "They need to play and interact with normal children for their own development. What is needed is educating people at all levels - from the teachers to the common man," says Dr. S. Jana, committee member, National Aids Control Programme (NACP), which is run by the National AIDS Coordination Organization (NACO).
Although there are no specific figures available as to the exact number of HIV+ children in West Bengal, Jana puts the figure at more than 1,000. NACP has come to its third stage and at this stage the concentration is on HIV+ children.
"In NACP III, we have recommended strongly that we should reduce the number of occurrences of positive children which, in our country, is now happening via vertical transmission - that is from mother to child. The policy is that every positive pregnant mother should come under the prevention programme. There should be more allocation of funds for positive children so that they can receive adequate Anti-Retroviral Treatment (ART) and nutritional support. In West Bengal and some other states in India it is difficult to find child doses of ART. So we are asking the national and the state governments to make child doses easily available. Thirdly, they should be provided with a social milieu where they can breathe freely," says Jana.
NACP III is set to begin in April 2007. The first stage of NACP lasted from 1992 to 1999, and the second stage from 1999 to 2004, which was then extended to 2006. At each stage, NACO identifies thrust areas. One of the thrust areas of NACPIII is that of dealing with HIV+ children.
It will not be an easy task to accomplish. Meanwhile, NGOs like Sanlaap are doing the best they can to protect the children from a society that is indifferent or worse, hostile.
(Names of children have been changed to protect identity)