Cash allowances help families with HIV positive children in Tajikistan regain hope
DUSHANBE, Tajikistan, March 2011 - Playing with her three-year-old son, Olim*, Marhabo tells me a story of desperation and hope. Their tiny, dimly-lit apartment on the outskirts of Dushanbe tells just how poor they are. The room is bare except for an old black-and-white TV. Marhabo and her son sit, eat and sleep on a pile of worn-out blankets. Plastic sheets serve as a replacement for some missing glass in the apartment’s windows.
“I was only 19 and newly married when Olim was born,” Marhabo tells. “After six months, my husband left for Russia in search of a job. Over the last two years, I have not heard from him.”
The husband’s departure was not the largest tragedy in the lives of Marhabo and Olim. Two years after her son’s birth, Marhabo learnt that they both have HIV.
“It was like a death sentence for me,” she recalls. “All I thought about HIV at that time was that it is a disease of drug addicts and commercial sex workers. I hated myself for infecting Olim with the disease.”
Putting her arms around Olim, Marhabo confides that after finding out her diagnosis, she was desperate and considered sending Olim to an orphanage. She knew she could hardly earn enough to buy bread and potatoes – the major diet for her and her son. Most of all, she was afraid of asking her husband’s family for help, fearing stigma and discrimination if they learnt about her and Olim’s disease.
Desperation gave way to hope last month, when Marhabo learnt from a local NGO that starting in 2011, all HIV-positive children in Tajikistan will be receiving a monthly allowance in the amount of about 50 US dollars. For the country where the average monthly salary of a public servant is less than this amount and more than 40 per cent of the population still live below the poverty line, this allowance is designed to help parents provide and support for their HIV positive children.
The adoption of a government resolution to provide social assistance to HIV positive children in Tajikistan is a result of continued advocacy and policy dialogue spearheaded by UNICEF. UNICEF also helped the country in costing the social protection scheme and developing the regulation.
“Family is the first line of protection and support for children,” says Hongwei Gao, UNICEF Representative in Tajikistan. “Well targeted direct cash transfer in an effective way of supporting poor families and, in this case, families with HIV positive children. It provides a safety net for the child.”
Social assistance to HIV positive children is just one element of UNICEF’s support for Tajikistan’s efforts in HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. UNICEF also works to prevent and reduce sexually transmitted infections and HIV transmission, particularly to newborns, help the country’s healthcare providers diagnose HIV at early stages, and increase access of the most vulnerable young people and pregnant women to quality voluntary counseling, testing and treatment.
Marhabo is one of possibly hundreds of parents who could soon start receiving the allowance. According to the Republican HIV/AIDS Prevention Centre, there are currently 53 children registered as HIV positive, which makes them eligible to receive the cash allowance. In practice, the number of HIV positive children in the country may be several times higher.
“I have hope again,” Marhabo says. “I feel I can raise Olim and help him become an educated and independent person.”
“This is all I need in my life,” she adds.
Written by Alexander Sodiqov