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Art therapy camps build confidence and hope for Thai children living with HIV

© UNICEF Thailand/2007/Few
Children make puppets to use in a drama performance at a UNICEF-sponsored art therapy camp in Thailand.

By Robert Few

SATTAHIP, Thailand, 14 June 2007 – The swimming and splashing stop at 10 minutes to 6 p.m., exactly. A whistle blows, and 50 children, ranging in age from 7 to 17, run out of the sea, laughing with their friends as they pick up their towels and shoes.

It will be dinner time soon, but there is a far more urgent reason to get back to dry land. All of these children are living with HIV, and it is time for them to take their second daily dose of antiretroviral (ARV) medicine – the pills that keep their immune systems functioning and allow them to live normal lives.

The children are attending an art therapy camp on a navy base near the resort town of Pattaya. It is run by the We Understand Group, a UNICEF-supported non-governmental organization in the area.

Among the campers is Pen (not her real name), 16, who was born with HIV when the epidemic was raging through Thailand in the early 1990s. It was a time when few people understood HIV/AIDS prevention and few medical services were available to those infected with the virus.

Today, if a Thai mother knows she has HIV and seeks medical help, the chance of her passing on the virus to her child can be reduced to as little as 2 per cent.

Orphaned and living with HIV

Pen’s parents died soon after her birth, and she was passed into the care of her extended family.

Despised and feared at home and at school, Pen lived a sad, withdrawn life until the virus flared up. Her arms and legs became covered with painful lesions, and she developed tuberculosis, which resulted in her hospitalization.

It was then that Pen’s HIV status was diagnosed. Doctors leading a UNICEF-supported project at her local hospital prescribed ARVs, and she began to get better. The virus receded, kept in check by the twice-daily regimen of pills.

But while Pen's immune system recovered, the attitude of her family, classmates and teachers became worse. As news spread that she really had HIV, she was completely ostracized.

© UNICEF Thailand/2007/Few
At the end of a fun day at art camp, a young Thai girl will receive her second daily dose of antiretroviral medicine.

Support group provides care

On her doctors’ recommendation, Pen signed up with the We Understand Group, which operates under the umbrella of the AIDS Access Foundation, helping children get access to treatment and emotional support. Through art and drama classes, the project counters the psychological effects of living with HIV – the pain of rejection, the fear of dying, the loneliness of being shunned by family and friends.

The group runs art therapy camps and other activities throughout the year for children living with HIV, bringing them together to learn from and support each other. These activities help to build their self-esteem, restore their confidence and teach them that they have as much worth as any other child.

There are an estimated 20,000 children under the age of 18 living with HIV in Thailand. However, the We Understand Group and other partners in the AIDS Access network currently have funding to support activities for only around 1,000 of these children.

Responding to emotional support

All of the children attending the art therapy camp have experienced discrimination. They also have been grappling with such problems as social isolation and the loss of their parents to AIDS. So it is no surprise they are often suffering from depression when they first arrive.

The co-founder of the We Understand Group, Chutima Saisaengchan, notes: “The children here say to us, ‘We have already reached the stage where we have to take medicines every day for our health, and we are so young.’”

But these children are also very brave, and they respond quickly to the kind of emotional support offered at the camp.

Art overcomes depression

“When the camps first started some four years ago, the children's paintings would be about sadness and death and problems with their families, all done in dark colours,” recalls UNICEF HIV/AIDS Project Officer Nonglak Boonyabuddhi. “Now their pictures are full of brightness and happiness. It is proof that children's lives can be turned around if they just receive the love and attention they deserve.”

Pen agrees. “I have learned that when we feel sad or uneasy, we should put our feelings into our paintings,” she says. “I used to keep all my emotions bottled up inside, but now I can paint to let them out.” Many of her latest pictures feature cheerful blue skies.

“When I feel that I don't know how long my life will last,” Pen explains, “I think that at least tomorrow I will be able to see the sun shine.”



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