I volunteered for a script writing workshop for kids recently. The unique feature of this workshop was that it was organized by UNICEF for HIV positive kids and adolescents from rural backgrounds. It was an eye opening experience. The youngest member of the group was a fourth standard boy (age 8) and the oldest member was a 21 year old girl. All of them came from remote villages of Maharashtra, which are confronted by many other problems as well. We never come across the statistics of AIDS in our daily lives. It is such a taboo in certain social classes that sometimes these workshops have to drop the "HIV positive" adjective from their agenda all together. I read up on this after the workshop. The situation is grim, to say the least:
"India has an estimated 220,000 children infected by HIV/AIDS. It is estimated that 55,000 to 60,000 children are born every year to mothers who are HIV positive. Without treatment, these newborns stand an estimated 30% chance of becoming infected during the mother’s pregnancy, labor or through breastfeeding after six months. There is effective treatment available, but this is not reaching all women and children who need it." (UNICEF India)
What was remarkable about these kids was their happiness. They were extremely happy to be with us. All of them, barring a few exceptions, were confident, happy and socially well adjusted. Some of them, especially the girls, were well into their first professional degree. They had chosen fields of study which were close to their hearts. One of them, a young boy about 20-22 years old, lives on his own in an organization that supports poor kids. He has chosen a masters course in social work. Many of these kids have one or no parents. Some of them lost their fathers at a very young age, leaving their uneducated and unemployed mothers vulnerable. So most of them realize how important it is to earn a living and almost all of them were on a path to do so. To keep the virus in check, these patients have to take a pill twice a day. I was moved when the slightly older teenagers were reminding the younger ones to take their pills on time. Somehow being in the same situation, had created a sad sense of belonging among them. But there was no guilt or remorse anywhere in the group because they were all dealing with their destiny.
At the end of the day, they had to write stories. Their stories were equally moving. Some of them wrote about what happened when they lost one parent to AIDS. One little boy thanked UNICEF for bringing happiness into his life. One of the popular kids (we had nicknamed him "hero") narrated how he was able to gain weight and a muscular frame -- thanks to the ongoing medications and dumb bells provided to him by the institute. Now he wants to try his hand at acting!
Although all of this sounds positive and hopeful, it is also evident how difficult it is to control the spread of this virus. Not just in rural areas but also among the urban elite. The Indian government does a lot to stop it. Various government schemes provide counseling support, medications, tests absolutely free of cost. It is also very heartening to see that at least among these circles people talk openly about safe sexual practices. I believe that on an organization level, Indian medical community is more open and liberal and detached from religion in these respects. Women have a lot more facilities made available to them absolutely free of cost. The real hurdle is the stigma and misconceptions associated with the proper use of contraceptives. In that, unfortunately gender inequality seems to play a major role as women don't have a say in choosing the method of contraception. Ultimately, the brunt is borne by innocent kids born to infected mothers. The world is just not fair. But it is humbling to see people adjust to misfortunes and still lead a purposeful life.
I am very grateful I got this opportunity. It helped me detach from my own life. Sometimes, I feel that we help others only to help ourselves. If I had not gone their to tell them stories as "Saee Tai", someone else would have. And it would all run just as smoothly. But the fact that I could be there, made a big difference to my life. It was as if I needed that experience more than they needed my help. It made me go back to "The Happiness Hypothesis", which deals with the question of why we help others. It is not just for the people we are helping, but also for ourselves. At the end of the day, I left the place feeling much more grateful than I was before. :)