HIV-infected children turn breadwinner, fight stigma

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At 19, Gargi P has three different names, two jobs at hand but just one identity - that of an HIV positive. Gargi is not her real name. Her friends and colleagues at the LPO, where Gargi works, know her by another name. At Chiguru - a network for HIV positive adolescents - the children call her Gargi akka (elder sister in local Kannada).

Gargi is the president of Chiguru and helps children fight against discrimination towards HIV/Aids in the conservative Karnataka society. To these children, perhaps there couldn't be a better example than Gargi herself because HIV/Aids is something that this gritty girl has been fighting since she was born.

Orphaned at the age of two, it was her grandmother Sushma who gave up everything, including the fear of alienation, to raise an HIV positive Gargi. Sushma not only made sure that her grandchild gets education but also a life despite being infected by the virus handed down by her parents.

HIV Children

Sushma's hard work and sacrifice have not gone in vain. Today, Gargi is not only employed as an executive in a Bangalore LPO (Legal Process Outsourcing) and earning Rs 11,000 per month but also takes care of her grandmother and the entire household.

"She has sacrificed everything for me. Not only did she toiled day and night to finance my education, food and clothing, but endured all kinds of discrimination. Now, it's my turn," says Gargi.

Activists working in the field of HIV/Aids say that in the past few years a new phenomenon has come to light.

In many families across Karnataka, HIV/Aids infected and affected children, even as young as 10 years old have taken upon the responsibility to earn a livelihood to support their households as their parents or caretakers are mostly old, infirm and incapable of earning.

"We call such an entity as a child-headed family, where a young person takes the onus upon him/her to run an entire household," says Lily (who goes by her first name only), sponsorship coordinator in Milana, a Bangalore-based voluntary organisation that provides family support to people living with HIV/Aids.

But not everyone is as lucky as Gargi, adds Lily. She says that in the process of earning a livelihood, many children are forced to drop out from schools, ending the prospect of completing their education.

Ramya M is one such child. College-going Ramya has decided to discontinue her studies to support her family of four --- she, her mother and two other siblings -- all HIV positive.

Ramya works as a private tutor to earn a decent monthly income.

"After my father died, my mother worked to run the family. Now, I have decided to take care of the entire household," declares a proud Ramya.

If asked about completing her studies and Ramya says she "will someday". She plans to enrol herself in a correspondence course for a bachelor degree. "But that can wait for the time being," she says.

Fortunately, children affected and infected by HIV/Aids have still not lost all hopes despite poor economic condition compounded by psychological problems. On the contrary, they have taken these problems head-on.

With around 300-odd young members, Chiguru, formed under the aegis of Milana, is proof enough to tell the world that adolescents with HIV positive are no different from any normal human being.

"When we meet, we talk about our fears, our insecurities. It also helps us develop strategies to deal with our problems. We also take an active role in educating communities about HIV and AIDS. Training programmes and sharing information strengthens this forum and builds the leadership skills of the children. The members of the forum meet once in a month," says Gargi.

Chiguru is currently celebrating the success story of George S (name changed), a regular member of the group, who has scored 84% in Karnataka PUC (Pre-University Course) Class 12 examination 2012, the results of which were declared earlier this year.

A student of KR Puram Government Pre-University College in Bangalore, George, who is HIV positive, was thrown out of his uncle's house a few months before his exams. He is still homeless and desperately looking for a house to stay and continue his education to fulfil his dreams of becoming an IAS officer.

Chairperson of Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (KSCPCR) Nina Nayak says due to lack of proper guidelines and rules to protect the rights of minors who are both infected and affected by HIV/Aids, most of them are leading deplorable lives. Figures available with Karnataka Network of Positive People (KNP+) reveal that there are 25,000 children in Karnataka who are both infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. Around 11,000 children in Karnataka at present are living with HIV/AIDS. The worst part is that around 300 children died of the dreaded disease during 2007-2010, statistics from National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) show.

NACO has marked Karnataka as one of the six states in the country with high HIV prevalence rate. The other five states are Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram. The Karnataka State AIDS Prevention Society (KSAPS) estimates that the state has 250,000 HIV infected people and 33,000 suffering from AIDS. An estimated 2.5 million people in India, aged between 15 and 49, are feared to be living with HIV and AIDS, the third largest in the world.

Back in Chiguru, Gargi and the children, she has been counselling, may not know the exact figures about this growing population, but they certainly know the trials and tribulations that come with the unspeakable disease. Every day as Gargi finishes her day's work at Chiguru, she makes sure to check the register at the counter. "It helps keep a tab on how many more has joined us," she says unaffected by the challenge that lies ahead. "It's certainly not more the merrier for us, but you can't ignore the truth, can you?" asks Gargi as she gets up on her feet to go home where she plays a different role under different circumstances with a different name, of course.

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