Children Affected by HIV have little chance to express themselves
By Ruth Ayisi
As her mother discretely disclosed her HIV positive status in coded language during an interview inside a secluded office room, twelve- year old- Oumou hid behind a thick glass door, straining to hear what was being said.
Once spotted, she sprinted along the office corridor until she was out of sight.
Her mother did not seem worried. It was unlikely that Oumou had become wiser about her mother’s health after eavesdropping on that conversation. However, it became apparent earlier that month that Oumou welcomed the opportunity to engage in discussions and to improve her understanding about issues around her.
She was eager to participate in a photography workshop for children, which was held in September. Organized by the local NGO, “Association des Enfants et Jeunes Travailleurs” (AEJT) and supported by UNICEF, the workshop gave the opportunity to a diverse group of Malian children to express themselves through photography. The best of the hundreds of photographs that the children took will be displayed throughout November in an exhibition in Mali’s capital, Bamako, during the 8th Bamako encounters- African Photography Biennial to commemorate the 20th year anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
The 7 girls and 11 boys, aged between 9 and 17 years, came from different backgrounds. Some attended school but others were not in formal education. Some children had to work to supplement their families’ meagre incomes and some children lived with or were affected by HIV, like Oumou. “The richness of this exhibition will come out of this diversity,” commented Marcel Rudasingwa, UNICEF Representative in Mali.
Oumou often talked to the facilitators after the workshop sessions, holding them affectionately by the arm. She was fascinated by the photographs taken by Giacomo Pirozzi, the international photographer running the workshop. Many of the children he photographed from different countries around the world had suffered the impact of war, natural disasters, and HIV/AIDS, and many of them had been denied their basic rights.
During the practical session, Oumou took many photographs of children working or begging to survive. “I am able to show what I think through photos,” she said. Her favourite photo of her was of a young boy darting in the midst of heavy traffic as he tried to sell dried dates. “He shouldn’t have to sell in the streets; it’s dangerous,” said Oumou indignantly.
Since the adoption of the CRC, there is a greater awareness about child rights, including the right to expression in this West African country. But, in practice, most children and women do not often have an opportunity to express their views. As shown in a recent study supported by UNICEF on the knowledge, awareness and practises on childrens’ and women’s rights, only 4 out of 10 children and 1 out of 3 women say that they are aware of their rights.
HIV/AIDS is rarely discussed by anyone. Part of the reason is that Mali has a relatively low prevalence rate; only about 1.3 per cent of the population live with the virus. But stigma and ignorance about HIV is rife and the biggest obstacle to supporting children living and affected by HIV/AIDS.
Oumou was told that her father died in an accident at work, while in fact he was HIV positive and died of tuberculosis. She was just six months old. Her mother sent Oumou to Ivory Coast to live with her grandmother until she was seven years old. By the time Oumou returned to Mali, she was shocked to find her mother was close to death. Her mother remembered, “I was so thin and weak, that when she saw me, she just cried.”
Oumou became her mother’s main care takers as the family rejected her when they found out she was HIV positive. “She would go to school, and then come straight back to look after me,” said her mother.
“She often asks me now why I’m still on medication which we collect from ARCAD-SIDA, one of the main organizations in Mali treating people living with HIV/AIDS as well and offering psychological support.
“She asks why we go there and isn’t that where people who have AIDS go to get medicine?”
Her mother maintains that Oumou is too young to understand her HIV status. However, Dr Bintou Dembele, the executive director of ARCAD-SIDA thinks differently. Oumou “is in a difficult situation. Dialogue between parents who are living with HIV/AIDS and their children is poor and even with doctors it can be awkward. The doctors deal with the medical problem, but few of them address the psychological issues.”
When asked what she does at ARCAD-SIDA, Oumou said, “When I go there, I play with the other children. I know the organization protects children and it gives drugs for AIDS. I know AIDS is a serious illness.” She looked uncomfortable. The discussion was changed to the workshop again. Oumou could not contain her excitement. “I took so many photos! I want to be a journalist when I grow up,” she said.