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God and the Sun

by Varvara Zhluktenko

“I ask him: ‘Artem, what’s in the sky in the daytime?’
“‘The sun,’ he answers.
“‘And what’s in the sky at night?’
“‘God,’ he says.”

© UNICEF Ukraine / 2009 / Rabushin
Myshko is dear and equal to other two children in the family.

Liudmyla is talking about her two-year-old grandson, and her severe, exhausted expression lights up with tenderness. The lean Kyiv woman looks edgy. Her voice is full of concern and anxiety. Life seems to be jeering at her, presenting her with constant new challenges.

Recently, however, fate gave Liudmyla’s family a priceless present: When Artem turned 18 months, any suspicions that he might be infected with HIV vanished. A test showed that the little boy, whose mother is HIV-positive and whose father might be, but is unwilling to be tested, is healthy.

The Right to a Grandson
Liudmyla’s main concern right now is to legalise her guardianship of her grandson. Even though the boy’s mother did not officially abandon him, she uses drugs and sees him rarely. The mother receives the small government child-care allowance of 130 UAH and she doesn’t always pass the money along to the people who actually care for her son. The money would come in handy to buy Artem juice and other things.

Lacking official guardianship, the old woman cannot take her grandson along to visit her relatives, who live on the southern Russian seashore. (Liudmyla dreams of the boy being able to swim in the sea.) To travel with the child, she needs written permission from both parents, but that’s not necessarily easy to get.

About 10 per cent of HIV-positive mothers in Ukraine abandon their newborn children, despite that a child’s HIV status cannot be confirmed for 18 months after his or her birth. One of the goals of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is to prevent this sort of “social orphanhood.” The emotional trauma that a child undergoes when he or she is abandoned and placed in a state care institution leaves marks that last a lifetime.

It is relatives – grandparents above all – who usually become guardians of HIV-infected children who for various reasons lose their parents. The government gives guardians of children a monthly allowance in the amount of two living wages. On average, such an allowance is slightly higher than 1,000 UAH.

In Search of Help
Liudmyla has just become a pensioner and her husband is on forced annual leave because of the economic crisis. The government’s guardianship assistance, then, would be of great support to the family. “I try to give Artem juice every day, even though it’s expensive,” she says. “I also try to give him a banana or a kiwi as well as dairy products, which are a must. I’ve never bought special vitamins for children because they’re too expensive, but natural products are our daily routine.”

The woman attended a training session for families with HIV-positive children organized by UNICEF in Kyiv with the support of British Airways. At that time, it was still possible that Artem was HIV-positive.

Today Liudmyla and Artem are welcome visitors at a help centre operated by the All-Ukrainian Network of People Living with HIV. But the centre, which distributes humanitarian aid, sanatorium vouchers and so on, has as its priority helping HIV-positive people, which Artem, thankfully, is not. That’s why Liudmyla has to count on herself. Not long ago the family was hit by another grave problem: Artem’s father, Liudmyla’s son, became seriously ill. He goes out with the boy when he can, but otherwise Grandma has to keep her eye on everything.
“Do you love me?” she asks her grandson.
“Love,” answers the lively fair-haired boy, and cuddles his grandma.

According to the Ukrainian AIDS Centre, there were 3,649 children with confirmed HIV-positive status in 2008. From 1987 through 2008, there were officially registered 20,926 HIV-infected children in Ukraine. Two hundred twenty-five of them have died.

With the support of British Airways, the UNICEF Country Office in Ukraine holds training sessions on the specifics of care for HIV-positive children. These sessions, which have already been held in Kyiv, Mykolaiv, Odessa, Kherson and Cherkasy, have brought together close to 150 adoptive parents, guardians and relatives who care for HIV-positive children but who lack official guardian status. In addition, about 60 AIDS centre staff members, paediatricians, specialists of the state social services and representatives of HIV-service organizations have received relevant training in concert with caregivers. This has resulted in improved social follow-up for HIV-positive children. Within the terms of this cooperative work, current Ukrainian legislation and practices have been evaluated in terms of their support for the development of family-based care forms for HIV-positive orphans. Certain funds have been committed for procuring rehabilitation equipment for HIV-service organizations that directly work with such children and their families as well as for developing methodological materials for both social workers and parents or guardians.



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