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Fear of HIV

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By Max Martin
Akshara (8) and Ananthu (6) have been boycotted at school and in their village of Kodiyoor in Kerala because they are HIV–positive. Following pressure from several quarters, they have now been allotted a separate room at school in which to study, and a new teacher.

Fear stalks the sleepy agrarian village of Kodiyoor in Kannur district, Kerala, the political hotspot of a state that boasts over 90% literacy. Around a fortnight ago, children aged between five and 10 were paraded by their parents along the village’s main street sporting placards saying a big ‘No’ to the entry of Akshara (8) and Ananthakrishanan (6) into the local primary school.

“When we went to school, following a directive from the chief minister to admit the children, we were stopped by a mob of parents,” says the children’s mother, Rema T K (31), a lean, frail woman with a firm voice.

Now, following several rounds of talks, support from a small group of villagers and direct pressure from the government, Akshara and Ananthu (the boy’s pet name) will have a new teacher and a special room to themselves starting Wednesday (July 28).

They have been given this special status because they are HIV–positive. And half the village is scared of them. “We are against their entry,” says Jayarajan P K, a parent. “What if our kids share a sweet with them or touch (them)?”

Akshara and Ananthu’s entry into school was postponed by two days as schools in Kerala remained closed in a flash of protests against private professional colleges, triggered by the suicide of a girl who was unable to pay her engineering college fees in Thiruvananthapuram.

Two months into the new academic year, it will be a test of the villagers’ courage and common sense. “Let us see which parent is bold enough to let their children sit near Akshara and Ananthu,” says school manager P C Ramakrishnan. “This is a village inhabited mostly by farmers. They are scared of this dreaded disease," he adds. “That is the result of earlier awareness programmes by the health department.”

Ramakrishnan says adamant parents forced the management to deny admission to Akshara and Ananthu even after repeated orders from the government. “Health officials who visited the school had no clear–cut answers to the parents’ doubts. In fact, their dilly–dallying worsened our fears.”

The villagers say there have been two AIDS–related deaths in the village. There have also been several awareness programmes, but these amounted to sheer scare–mongering. “At first they said HIV can spread through saliva, sweat and shared razors,” explains Jayarajan. “Now they say different things. How can you erase your first lessons?”

HIV–infection spreads through sex, shared injection needles and blood transfusion, not casual contact.

But everyone who spoke to this reporter stood their ground. They voiced their concerns in an articulate manner, but nobody uttered the word ‘Sex’.

Since their father Shaji Kumar’s death from AIDS in June 2003, Akshara and Ananthu have been treated like children of a lesser god in the village. Ironically, their school is run by a trust named after Sri Narayana Guru – a Hindu reformist who preached one caste, one religion and one god.

Children were made to desert the anganwadi (government kindergarten) where Ananthu studied last year – till he started taking lessons in a separate room. Segregation of people living with HIV in public places is a violation of internationally accepted norms.

Akshara was dismissed from the primary school, as she did not attend school for over 15 days, following her father’s death. It seems nobody wanted her around anyway. “When I went for admission in May (2004), the school authorities nicely told me to go away saying the other parents would protest,” says Rema.

The school’s erstwhile principal Augusthy says threats from the other parents would have meant the loss of jobs for a few teachers. “If the student strength comes down, the government will cut down a division or two,” he says. “Without parents and students, there is no school,” says Ramakrishnan. “We cannot afford to close it down.”

In this hilly region of the state, many students trek up to five kilometres to attend school.

Rema and her children are lucky to have a few good neighbours. “If someone opposes them, we will confront them,” says Thankachan A K, whose child studies at the same school.

As for Rema, it’s time to call a truce. “I want to accept this offer (of a separate class) as I don’t want a confrontation at this point. Later we can push for more inclusion.”

(Max Martin is a freelance writer based in Bangalore)

InfoChange News & Features, July 2004




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