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Support for Malaysian children affected by HIV and AIDS

© UNICEF Malaysia/2010/Jaafar
Aina (right) and Anwar (centre) look at photographs with Wan Hava Wan Hussin, home supervisor of Rumah Solehah, an orphanage for children living with HIV and AIDS.

By Juana Jaafar

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, 29 July 2010 – Thirteen-year-old Aina (name changed) is determined to be a filmmaker when she grows up. She knows she’s talented and isn’t too shy to talk about it.

“Women can make good filmmakers,” she said. “I’m going to make feel-good films because sad stories are simply too tiresome.”

Aina is a secondary school student living at Rumah Solehah, an orphanage for children living with HIV and AIDS. Rumah Solehah is home to 13 children, 12 of whom are HIV-positive – including Aina’s 15-year-old brother, Anwar (name changed).

As Malaysia faces an increase in the number of its young people living with HIV, it also faces mounting social stigma associated with the virus. UNICEF is working with the government to ensure that children living with and affected by HIV are protected and receive the best care possible.

Facing ostracism

When Aina’s brother discovered that she was being harassed by her peers because she was related to him, an HIV-positive person, he insisted she move in with him at Rumah Solehah. He knew all too well the discrimination she was facing in school – despite the fact that she is HIV-negative.

© UNICEF Malaysia/2010/Jaafar
Wan Hava Wan Hussin (centre) sings with Anwar (right) and Aina after school.

Anwar was the first HIV-positive child at the orphanage when he arrived there with his mother in 2000 at the age of five. For several years, his sister continued to live with other family members while he and his mother sought refuge at Rumah Solehah.

“The children’s mother was ostracized by the family when she found out she was infected,” explained Wan Hava Wan Hussin, home supervisor of Rumah Solehah. “She was abandoned by her husband who was actually the one who infected her. She had nowhere to go, so she stayed here until the day she died.”

According to data released by the Ministry of Health, the percentage of children and young people affected by HIV and AIDS increased between 2004 and 2008. Many also suffer psycho-emotional consequences from the loss of their parents to AIDS-related illnesses.

'Stigma strikes hard’

According to UNICEF Representative in Malaysia Hans Olsen, stigma around HIV and AIDS usually manifests as ostracism or avoidance of persons believed to practice a ‘shameful’ lifestyle. Caused by ignorance and fear, stigma can affect a child’s access to education, health care and other basic rights. As in the case of Aina, stigma also often applies to those who are themselves not infected but are associated with infected persons.

“For children, stigma strikes hard on their self-esteem and psychological well-being,” said Mr. Olsen. “Put simply, stigma kills their spirit.”

To confront stigma in Malaysia, UNICEF is working with the government on a programme known as the Preliminary Assessment of Children Affected by AIDS. It seeks to compile data about the socio-economic impact of the virus on children and make recommendations for strengthening policies to ensure that children and their families receive optimum care.

Homes like Rumah Solehah play a critical role in protecting children affected by HIV and AIDS. In 2010, the home, along with two other organizations, will receive financial support from UNICEF. The funds will be disbursed through the Malaysian AIDS Council. UNICEF Malaysia also sponsored two representatives from the Department of Islamic Development of Malaysia to attend the AIDS 2010 conference in Vienna, Austria this month.

Safety and solace

A direct consequence of HIV for many affected children and young people is the loss of their family unit, and with it, their natural economic, social and emotional safety nets. Besides providing a safe home for the children, the caretakers at homes for children affected by HIV and AIDS also strive to give the children a sense of family and stability.

Ms. Hussin acts as a mother figure for the children living under her care, monitoring their progress at school and making sure they complete their assignments. She also counsels them and encourages them to look to each other as siblings.

The home supervisor recalls a time when Anwar fell into a depression and almost gave up on his HIV treatment. He grew tired of having to take medicines every day, but decided to continue with his treatment for his sister’s sake. Ms. Hussin said Anwar knew the only way for him to be there for his sister was to be alive and well. Anwar and Aina are lucky to have each other, and to be part of the Rumah Solehah family.



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