"Living without discrimination" reads one of the signs
carried by students from Yen Bai Secondary School and
the Ba Vi Centre for Social Education and Labour at the
Colourful Rainbowl camp this month.
— Photo courtesy Save the Children Viet Nam
HA NOI — As the new school year begins, some 40 youngsters with HIV at the Centre for Social Education and Labour No 2 in Ba Vi, on the outskirts of Ha Noi, still long for the day when they can join mainstream education.
Quach Thi Mai, principal of Yen Bai B Primary School, said a lack of understanding about the disease had led to a great deal of prejudice and a reluctance among parents to let their children study alongside those with HIV.
Mai said five children from the centre were allowed to attend 1st grade at her school four years ago but that they were forced to leave after a few days because of protests by parents of other schoolchildren.
Angry parents even persuaded those who were not unduly concerned not to let their children study in the same class as pupils with HIV, Mai said.
As a result, a class was opened at the Centre for Social Education and Labour No 2, and two teachers from Yen Bai B Primary School were assigned to teach school-age pupils at the centre, Mai said.
She added that there are two classes for 34 1st to 5th grade pupils.
Over the last four years, the centre's children have only been allowed to attend flag raising ceremonies at Yen Bai B Primary School on Mondays and a few other outdoor activities.
"They are just kids. They work and play together without any discrimination when parents do not intervene," Mai said.
This year, five students graduated from the Centre for Social Education and Labour No 2, but none has so far been able to gain admission to a secondary school.
Nguyen Thanh Dong, the principal of Yen Bai B Secondary School, said he had been forced to bar children with HIV from the school because of objections by parents, and was reluctant to send his teachers to the centre to teach children with HIV because of the inconvenience.
He said parents needed to be won over. He said that could only happen if they were better informed about HIV/AIDS.
Pham Dinh Duc, 11, one of the five teens to graduate from the Centre for Social Education and Labour, said his biggest dream was to find a place at a main-stream secondary school.
Duc and a number of other pupils at the centre have responded well to treatment with antiretroviral (ARV) drugs. Although still HIV-positive, Duc said he and most of the other youngsters at the centre were fit enough to study at a "normal" school.
Duc's friend at the centre, 17-year-old Uyen, has also successfully finished 5th grade. She, like he, longs to study with non-HIV children her own age.
"I spend all my time with them [other HIV-positive children at the centre], eating together, playing together and studying together. We have nothing new to talk about," she said.
"If I can go to a regular school, I will be in a class with my own teacher with students my own age. I would not have to share a teacher with younger students in the same class," she said.
Nguyen Thi Minh, who has been a social worker at the centre for 10 years, said every youngster had expressed a desire at some time or another to go to a mainstream school.
"They ask me over and over again, ‘why can't we go to school?'" She said it was heart-rending when they tearfully promised to obey their teachers, not to get in fights and not to infect other students.
"We have prepared every student here with the knowledge they need when they one day go to a regular school. They know what health precautions to take so as not to risk infecting other people," she said.
Nguyen Trong An, deputy head of the Child Care and Protection Department under the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, said too much had been written and said about HIV/AIDS and that the public had "overdosed", leading to fear and prejudice.
"Prejudice plus improper understanding has created a lot of hostility towards those with HIV/AIDS. Unfortunately that has made it difficult for those with the disease to integrate fully into society. Among the victims are innocent HIV/AIDS children," he said.
According to the Health Ministry, at the end of last year, there were 184,000 HIV-positive people in Viet Nam. Of those, 44,000 had developed AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). Of the 4,400 children who were HIV-positive, 2,550 children had received ARV drugs.
In addition, they were often the victims prejudice and forced "to live in deprived conditions and suffer the physical and psychological hurt of discrimination."
Unfortunately, An said the law was not being properly enforced and limited resources meant that services for those with HIV were sub-standard.
Trinh Thi Le Tram, a medical doctor and director of the Legal Consultancy Centre for Health and HIV/AIDS, said those with HIV were legally entitled to study at a mainstream school.
The Law on HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control and the Law on Child Care, Protection and Education clearly state that children with HIV/AIDS have the right to attend a regular school. Those that prevent them from doing so are breaking the law and should be punished, he said.
Two Government decisions that came into effect last June and this month set fine levels of up to VND10 million (US$485) for those that impede or prevent HIV-positive children from attending a mainstream school.
Tram added that the law should pave the way for HIV-positive children to participate fully in mainstream education.
Nguyen Thi Kim Tien, director of the HCM City-based Linh Xuan Centre for Child Upbringing and Sponsoring, said better co-ordination between local authorities and schools was needed to ensure the rights of children with HIV/AIDS were protected.
She said close co-operation between staff at the centre, the local authority and schools had been crucial to ensuring that those attending the Linh Xuan Centre had gained admission to a mainstream school over the last three years.
Tien said that children with HIV attending a special centre stood out and were easily identifiable, whereas those living in the community could keep their condition secret.
Tien said three years ago she had been forced to call the police after local residents protested outside the centre about HIV/AIDS students attending local schools. Instead of expelling children with HIV/AIDS, the schools' management boards had instead accepted the right of parents to send their "healthy" children to other schools, Tien said, adding that all local schools were asked not to enrol those student.
In the 2008-09 academic year, 26 children from the Linh Xuan Centre enrolled at a mainstream school, but their illness was known only to school staff to avoid discrimination, Tien added that in the past staff were often forced to lie to parents to protect HIV-positive students.
On August 13, the European Commission and Save the Children in Viet Nam jointly organised a workshop titled " Way to school for children with HIV/AIDS: Opportunity and Challenge" in Ba Vi District of Ha Noi, in an effort to help authorities and agencies pave the way to mainstream schooling for affected children. -- VNS