|© UNICEF Thailand/2005/Few|
|Nampheung Plangraun, the manager of AIDS Access Foundation, talks with one of the Foundation's counsellors in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand.|
By Robert Few
CHIANG RAI, Thailand 14 December 2005 – Irene is 15 and beautiful. Everyone in her village knows she is, because she won last year’s annual beauty contest. What they don’t know is that she is also HIV-positive.
Many of the villagers here in northern Thailand would find it hard to accept Irene if they knew the truth. There is still considerable fear of the AIDS virus and misunderstanding about how it spreads – despite the fact that this part of northern Thailand has been the centre of the country’s epidemic for nearly two decades.
Although Irene is now a picture of health, photographs taken just a few months ago show a skeletal figure in a wheelchair, so ill she could not even walk. “I got sick when I was 14,” she told us. “I couldn’t breathe properly for a year and so the doctor tested my blood. I heard him tell my guardians I was HIV-positive. These days I do not feel like a normal person. I am separated from normal people because I have this infection and my friends do not.”
This sense of isolation and fear of the community’s reaction is keeping Irene out of school. After a half year of taking antiretroviral medicine, she is well enough to study again. But Irene does not wish to return to school because she would have to repeat a year and, more importantly, explain why she was absent.
“Although schools are supposed to accept children with HIV, there is a difference between policy and practice,” explained Nampheung Plangraun, the manager of AIDS Access Foundation, a UNICEF-supported non-governmental organization (NGO). “All children can go to school, but they often return home in tears because their friends tease them or the other children refuse to play with them or their teachers isolate them. We have one child here who was forced to eat in a separate part of her school for a year. The attitude is that you should cut off the weakest part for the benefit of the whole.”
Then there is the difficulty of catching up after a prolonged absence. “In one case, we had a child whose illness had caused him to miss a few years of school,” Plangraun said. “After taking antiretroviral medicine, his health improved, but he refused to go back because he would have had to start again from where he left off – studying in a class without his friends and with children who are several years younger than him.”
Breaking down preconceptions
But the work of UNICEF and partners like AIDS Access is helping to raise awareness and foster compassion among local communities. By running training sessions and promoting communication between HIV-positive groups and other local people, the NGO highlights the real lives and needs of those with HIV. This leads to greater understanding and greater acceptance. At the same time, by working with local teachers, government officials and monks, they allow traditional authority figures to set an example of acceptance that the community can follow.
They have also brought families affected by HIV/AIDS together to form self-help groups to look after each other and run awareness raising programmes. “The idea is to use the funding we have received from UNICEF to build the capacity of local people so that they can run their own projects in the future without outside help,” said Plangraun.
The goal of developing confidence and practical skills among people affected by HIV is already beginning to be realized. Irene herself has big plans for the future: “When I grow up I want to be a nurse so I can help other people with HIV/AIDS,” she said. “I think my life is meaningful and I want to tell other people like me not to give up.”