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September 4, 2010

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AIDS orphans head to school

SCHOOL has opened in a poor AIDS-stricken county in Sichuan Province and AIDs orphans attend a special class with special benefits. All are HIV-negative but they face many hurdles. Wang Ruoyao and Zheng Qiao report.

Getting up at 6am, Zhihuo, a 14-year-old girl from the Chinese Yi ethnic minority, started her first day as a fifth grader by feeding the only pig on the tiny property where she lives with her 76-year-old grandmother.

Brought up hand-to-mouth by her grandmother, she lost her parents several months after her birth in Zhaojue, a poverty-stricken county in the Yi Autonomous Prefecture of Liangshan in southwestern Sichuan Province.

In Zhihuo's class there are 41 Yi students who are all believed to have lost one or both parents to AIDS. All are negative for the HIV virus that causes AIDS, but they still face discrimination.

Most students have been reared by their grandparents, while several lucky ones can count on their uncles and aunts, says Wusha, who began tutoring the children right after he graduated from college in August 2006.

The class was established in 2006 by the prefecture's women and children development center at Sikai Central School of Zhaojue in 2006. Since 2009 it has received funds from the China Red Ribbon Foundation, a national non-government organization dedicated to the prevention and control of AIDS.

Shadow of AIDS

China's largest Yi community, Liangshan is also one of the areas worst plagued by AIDS.

Since the first HIV case was found among drug users sent back from Yunnan Province in 1995, Liangshan had reported 18,003 cases of AIDS by the end of 2009, accounting for 60 percent of Sichuan's total, with 5,530 new cases last year alone, according to Yang Zhaobo, deputy head of the prefectural government.

"Many people in Liangshan who contracted AIDS are intravenous drug users. Due to poor medical conditions, they wouldn't voluntarily take tests or seek medications, and finally died of various complications of the disease," says Ye Dawei, vice secretary of the foundation.

The incurable disease left a large number of children orphaned in Liangshan, though no authoritative figures have been released.

Workers with the Red Ribbon Foundation once visited some families of AIDS orphans in Zhaojue, Ye says. "They are living a really hard life. In an extremely poor family, I saw that those jars used to contain rice and flour were empty. They ate meat about once a month."

Malnutrition was threatening the physical conditions of the students, who were significantly shorter than other children their age.

"The AIDS orphans that our sponsorship couldn't reach were in worse health," Ye adds.

The foundation gave every student 150 yuan (US$22) per month, so food and uniforms would no longer be barriers to schooling. But the subsidy was insufficient to support entire families or enable them to develop outside interests.

"I still remember one night last year when Zhihuo and her grandmother had run out of food. The girl knelt in a field at 10pm to dig for potatoes, took them back home alone and cooked them for her grandmother," tutor Wusha recalls.

Also, most students had to do household and farm chores to help make ends meet. "We simply can't afford to play," says 12-year-old Muniu.

Given the county government's limited budget, it couldn't help much, Ye says.


Any conversations concerning their parents are taboo for the children, even among themselves, Wusha says.

They love being together due to their similar backgrounds, but are unwilling to share their stories, he says. "Also, they never mentioned that to me."

Some became silent when asked something like, "When did you begin living with your grandparents?" while others simply said, "I can't remember."

While struggling with poverty, the children also face discrimination from others, even though they test HIV-negative.

Zhang Lin, a worker with the foundation, says the children were unfairly treated at summer camp in Shanghai and Beijing last month.

The travel agencies responsible for the trip insisted on reviewing the children's medical tests, which Zhang calls "unacceptable." Zhang accompanied the children to the Summer Palace, Tsinghua University, the Great Wall and the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai.

"Demanding to see the tests shows discrimination and the misunderstandings some have about AIDS orphans. Knowledge about AIDS should be more publicized to prevent innocent children being stigmatized any longer," he says.

The children, deprived of parental love, are sometimes scorned at school.

"Sometimes, students from other classes laugh at them for not having parents. Whenever it happens, they suddenly get depressed and sometimes cry," says Wusha.

He often shouts at the bullies, but the hurt had already been inflicted.

Worrisome future

The Red Ribbon Foundation wants to help more students get into school and protect them from juvenile crime, drugs and other social problems, said Ye from the foundation.

But they are at risk.

China has nine years of compulsory education, providing all children aged 6 and older with free access to primary and junior middle schools, but many AIDS orphans in poor families in Zhaojue still stay at home or have found a job outside their hometown.

Wusha never stops worrying that he may lose some students before they graduate from primary school.

His students are generally older than others in the same grade and some just can't wait to earn money, he says. "For instance, an 18-year-old boy dropped out before he finished the third grade and left Zhaojue."

Wusha says he was more concerned about the future of the boys. "After elderly caregivers die, girls still have a chance to have a good marriage and join a normal family, but what will become of the boys? Are they strong enough to head a family?"

However, Wusha says he was happy to see the changes that came over the students after they returned from summer camp. "It was the first time that they had ever been to cities, and that experience brought joy and inspiration to their lives," he says.

The students were especially in high spirits when visiting Tsinghua University, one of the China's most prestigious.

"I really want to get into a good university so I can make good money after graduation and repay the kindness of my uncle and aunt as soon as possible," says 14-year-old Niuri.

Zhihuo, the courageous girl, has made up her mind to have a career outside her poor hometown and said she doesn't want to pin her hopes on a "good marriage."


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