IMPHAL, Nov 30: 13-year old Devender Singh lives with his 60-year-old grandmother, Mahima Devi, in Imphal West. Devender lost his parents to AIDS many years ago, and has been cared for by his grandmother ever since. Mahima has managed to eke out a living for them by selling vegetables in the market, but the recent economic blockade in the State has made survival almost impossible. As prices of petrol skyrocketed and mobility was restricted, Mahima had no customers to buy her wares. The soaring prices of food meant that she could not afford to buy nutritious food like bananas and eggs which are so crucial for Devender, who is frequently ill and currently on Anti Retroviral Therapy (ART).
Growing up in a conflict zone, children in the north-eastern state of Manipur are often deprived of their childhood; yet it is the children living with HIV who face the toughest struggles. In addition to coping with a life-threatening disease and the social stigmas attached to it, many children are deprived of the life-saving Anti Retroviral Therapy (ART) due to curfews imposed, and the sporadic supply of medication to the hospitals and healthcare centres during conflicts.
Atindranath Das, Regional Director, CRY says, “The situation of children living with HIV is particularly disconcerting, since they are infected, and affected by circumstances and actions beyond their own doing. They are, in every sense, innocent victims of the epidemic.”
The absence of a social security system from both, the community and the state force many children living in families affected by HIV/AIDS to be caregiver and engage in economic activity to run the household. Janardhan studies in the 7th standard and lives with his mother Ritika, who is HIV positive and currently on ART. A single mother, Ritika is often ill and weak, unable to carry out farming chores on a small piece of land which is the only source of income for the family. As a result, Janardhan frequently misses school to help out his mother by working on the farm and doing the household chores.
The National Aids Control Organisation (NACO) in its Strategy and Implementation Plan 2006 states that the present responses on care given to children infected and affected by HIV/AIDS provide mere short-term benefits and do not cater to their best interests in terms of their right to health, protection, education and nutrition.
In order to effectively address the needs of children, both, infected and affected by HIV, CRY recommends three basic actions:
(i) Since ART is proven to suppress the HIV virus and stop the progression of the HIV disease, the government should make ART freely available and accessible, specially in paediatric doses, preferably at the community level through functioning Primary Healthcare Centres.
(ii Create and enable special corridors for supply of life-saving drugs including ART so that frequent blockades do not take a toll on children living with HIV.
(iii) To combat and end the life-threatening degree of stigmatization of HIV affected children, widespread community awareness programmes are needed, as well as peer-to-peer education, support groups and facilitated workshops.
(iv) CRY calls for the National bodies such as the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) and the respective Ministries to step in, to resolve the situation while keeping children’s needs at the top.
(v) The long-term conflict has resulted in unprecedented denial of the rights to health, survival and development for all children in Manipur, including the HIV positive children. The government should push for a permanent end to armed conflict that is one of the significant reasons behind poor access to healthcare. The extra judicial powers vested with the army needs to be thoroughly re-examined to ensure that children do not suffer from violence and trauma.
“Any HIV-specific programme must acknowledge and work with the extreme stressors that are a daily reality for children infected and affected with HIV/AIDS,” says Atindranath Das. “State authorities must invest in public facilities, infrastructure and rights-related services such as primary healthcare, provision of Anti Retroviral Therapy (ART) for children and schooling. This approach needs to be prioritised above all other approaches to problem-solving in Manipur,” he adds.