Community care transforms lives of Aids orphans

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 December, 2006, 12:00am

In villages decimated by the disease, a project gives children confidence to live, writes Alice Yan

In a remote northern part of Anhui province , a transformed 15-year-old girl returns home from school in Lulou village and helps her 'aunt' make lunch for her brothers.

Tian Tian, not her real name, is a shy teen of few words but her positive spirit is obvious, a sharp contrast to the traumatised girl who moved into a newly built home for Aids orphans in April.

Her mother died from Aids eight years ago and four years later her father, also an HIV carrier, committed suicide by drinking pesticide.

Before taking his fatal dose, the father fed poison to Tian Tian and her two younger brothers in an attempt to release them from a life of hardship and isolation from other villagers, even relatives.

But the three children survived and Tian Tian had to drop out of school to raise her brothers and make a living from their quarter hectare of farmland. That was when she became all but mute, refusing to talk to anyone except her brothers.

The family's new home is part of a Small Family Unit project sponsored by the international Save the Children organisation and houses four children: Tian Tian, her two younger brothers, aged 12 and 9, and a 10-year-old boy from another family whose parents both died of Aids after selling blood in the 1990s.

Also living in the home is a couple chosen by Save the Children and its local government partner to care for and educate the children.

'Aunt' Guo Zhenping , 57, and her primary school teacher husband are clearly aware of the responsibility they have to look after the four orphans.

'It is easy to teach them and they deal with each other very well. Every day I prepare meals for them, wash their clothes and make sure they finish their school assignments. Sometimes I help them grow or harvest their crops. I feel very sad for those kids,' Ms Guo said.

Freed of the need to worry about where their next meal will come from, the children say they enjoy their new home. They had also made dramatic progress, a Save the Children project officer said.

'Seven months ago when I saw Tian Tian, she just lowered her head and did not answer any questions. But now she is much more open and can face some direct and sensitive questions [about her parents],' said HIV/Aids project manager He Yao , based in Fuyang .

Tian Tian says she knows her parents got the deadly virus from selling blood and they had to sell blood because they were poor. 'I miss them every day,' she said.

She is studying in the same fifth-grade class as her 12-year-old brother, trying to make up for lost time, and has no plans for the future other than raising her brothers.

Tian Tian and her brothers are fortunate in one respect, in that the social stigma against Aids-affected families is not so dominant in their small village because in recent years many people have been diagnosed with HIV as a result of selling blood.

Of the 1,200 people in Lulou village, where the average annual per capita income is just 700 yuan, 197 were living with HIV/Aids and another 64 had died from the disease, leaving 24 children orphaned, said village party secretary Lu Wei .

Mr Lu said Aids orphans in the area received a monthly subsidy of 100 yuan and HIV carriers received the same plus free drugs. Most of the orphans stay with relatives, if they have any, but many extended families are already struggling.

In addition to their own two children, Lu Jichun , 41 and HIV positive, and his wife took in his 10-year-old niece, Ting Ting, when her parents died from Aids six years ago. The strain of the disease shows.

'I cannot do any labour-intensive work and I just stay at home, taking medicine distributed by the government every day. I don't have energy to care for those children. I have had three serious relapses and almost lost my life,' he said.

Lu Wei wants more organisations like Save the Children to adopt more orphans like Ting Ting, whose relatives are also vulnerable. But Save the Children is not in favour of the idea, insisting that the best environment for a child is with relatives.

Pan Yujie , the vice-director of the Lixin county Civil Affairs Department, agrees with Save the Children and says the important thing is to help orphans and Aids patients gain the confidence to live.

'We need volunteers to give people affected by Aids psychological counselling and help them regain a passion for life,' Mr Pan said.

Lixin county, which administers Lulou village, officially has 1,045 people with HIV in a population of 1.3 million and accounts for about a third of Anhui's total HIV carriers.

'In several villages we have not surveyed there are some people with this disease. In those villages with a small number of Aids cases, patients dare not reveal they have the disease,' Mr Pan said. 'Fear and discrimination are the obstacles to preventing and treating HIV.'