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Second parenthood

Grandparents could be faced with the responsibility of looking after children orphaned by AIDS, says NIMI KURIAN.

HARI is three years old and has to make frequent visits to the Tuberculosis Research Centre, (TRC) Division of HIV/AIDS, Chennai. He asks: "Why do we have to come here so often?"

Hari has tested positive for HIV/AIDS, and his parents are HIV positive too.

This is a story that has ominous tones as Neil Monk's study Enumerating Children Orphaned by HIV/AIDS, Counting A Human Cost, predicts that the number of children orphaned worldwide because of AIDS could reach 100 million by 2010.

A burden on grandparents

At the TRC, a follow-up on 67 families who were outpatients provided startling results. A finding in their (as yet unpublished) report — Behavioural Study on the Status of AIDS Orphans was that 14 per cent of children orphaned by AIDS were cared for by their maternal grandparents and 10 per cent by their maternal relatives. Grandparents are put under tremendous strain. They have since passed the age of being able to earn a living and are not physically strong to take on this responsibility. Dr. P. Manorama, who runs an orphanage called the Community Health Education Society (CHES) ashram on the outskirts of Chennai, feels that the next crisis the country would be faced with is the burden of responsibility on the elderly.

In Monk's study, Children of the HIV/AIDS Pandemic. The Challenge for India, he says that India has not yet experienced a large-scale crisis of AIDS orphans, c but with sero-prevalence rising fast, HIV/AIDS is certain to make a dramatic increase in the already high numbers of orphans in India. As in Africa, this could diminish orphan care base. In Africa, in the worst hit areas, the whole adult population has been decimated, leaving large numbers of children in the care of a few adults who survive — often grandparents.

Children who have lost their parents to AIDS are ostracised and shunned. Most of these children are denied proper schooling because schools and parents are ignorant. Mr. Vidyakar, who runs Udavum Karangal (an orphanage that houses 400 children, of whom 22 have AIDS) in Chennai, says that there is an urgent need for more awareness so that these children are not deprived of an education. He runs a school and ensures that the children get a good education. He goes on to say that these children are intelligent and are the ones who top the class. But more regular schools need to come forward to allow these children to get into the mainstream, he feels.

Most doctors advise that the children not be told their status as it is disheartening and they lose the will to live.

Despair and dreams

Twelve-year-old Suniti, who is an outpatient at a hospital, knows she is infected. She is withdrawn and very quiet. She refuses to study or go to school. She says, "Anyway I am going to die, so why should I go to school and study?"At CHES, there are 33 children, of whom 30 have tested positive. Dr. Manorama says none of the children know that they are sick. Hygienic living conditions, a nutritious diet, a regular intake of vitamins and, of course, a large dose of love and affection has worked wonders with these children, she says. They are a happy bunch, full of eager questions and curious about the world outside.

Ten-year-old Prakash is excited and he is restless as he answers questions, because he wants to get back to his preparations for the festive season round the corner. He enjoys his studies and is happy with his life at the orphanage. He wants to become a policeman when he grows up. Will he live to realise his dream?

Jaya and her friends are excited too and have been practising a dance number from the movie "Chocolate" as a part of the celebrations. But unlike Jaya, Manish is not very excited. He has just called his uncle asking if he could visit them. But his uncle has said no. Manish is a recent entrant to the orphanage, and has lost not only his parents and his family but also his property. His uncle has taken over the property.

Children orphaned by AIDS have to face social exclusion and economic uncertainty, illiteracy, malnutrition, illness, exploitation of their labour and at times, physical and sexual abuse too. Those in care are looked after but for every child that is in the orphanage there are so many more who are thrown out of their homes. The youngest child at Udavum Karangal who is infected is but six months old.

India today is faced with a large percentage of sick children, which will cause a sharp increase in infant mortality rates. The drop out rate from schools will also increase. There will be a large percentage of children living with their grandparents. And, ultimately, these setbacks will decrease the prospects for a healthy meaningful life for millions of children in India.

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