|© UNICEF Côte d’Ivoire/2006/Westerbeek|
|Kouadio, 6, uses a UNICEF education kit at a health centre in Côte d’Ivoire.|
By Alexandra Westerbeek
UNICEF and its partners are marking the first anniversary of the UNITE FOR CHILDREN UNITE AGAINST AIDS campaign, which was launched in New York on 25 October 2006. The following story highlights the key issue of HIV/AIDS stigma, which the ongoing campaign is addressing worldwide.
CÔTE D’IVOIRE, 25 October 2006 – There are close to 100 visitors waiting in the UNICEF-supported health centre today. Women and men, many with their babies and children, have come seeking many different services: HIV testing, counselling and medical treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS-related illnesses.
A little boy sits quietly with two women, awaiting his turn. Kouadio (not his real name) is six years old and is starting school this year. A social worker approaches and hands him a UNICEF education kit. Excited, he checks the contents of the bag. Inside he finds a small blackboard, chalk, pens, pencils, notebooks, crayons, a ruler and scissors.
His two aunts, Miranda and Doris (not their real names), are pleased. The social worker has confirmed that the centre will pay Kouadio’s school fees. Without the centre’s support he would not be able to attend school.
HIV test results positive
In addition to raising their own children – Miranda has two and Doris has six – the two women take care of Kouadio, whose father abandoned him long ago. His mother (their sister) died of an AIDS-related illness about seven months ago.
It was after his mother’s death that doctors recommended Kouadio be tested for HIV. The test results were positive.
The boy, his aunts and their children now all live together in a small concrete house in a suburb of the town. The children share two bedrooms, but the boys who share a room with Kouadio are the most fortunate: They sleep under the only mosquito net in the house, which was given to Kouadio to protect him from malaria.
Kouadio does not understand his illness. His aunts have never told him or the other children that he has the same disease his mother had. He is now on antiretroviral (ARV) treatment provided by the health centre.
“Since being on ARVs, he is much better,” says Doris. “Before, he suffered a lot from colds and infections.”
‘We have decided to keep quiet’
HIV/AIDS is still a taboo and is rarely talked about in Côte d’Ivoire.
“People are often rejected by their family and friends, mainly because this is still a fairly unknown disease,” explains the social worker at the health centre. “People do not understand what HIV/AIDS is about. That is why outreach programmes and peer education are important elements in reaching the infected, affected and general population.”
Adds one of Kouadio’s aunts: “Even if our children, friends and community knew more about HIV/AIDS, I am not sure he would be accepted fully. Things would change, even if we tried to create an understanding and accepting environment. I worry about this. That is why we have decided to keep quiet about his disease.”
“I hope his status remains a secret,” Miranda whispers while looking at the little boy affectionately.
School has resumed this month, and Kouadio is one of the 200 local children fortunate enough to attend. He does not quite know what to expect, but he is looking forward to becoming one of the ‘big boys’.
“I want to go to school and when I finish, I want to be a doctor,” he says with a smile on his face. “I want to be a doctor because I want to cure myself.”