Caring for orpahns and vulnerable children in Andhra Pradesh, India.
“A decade-long experience in finding path-breaking solutions in addressing this challenge” - Dr Keerthi Vidya, from the Alliance’s linking organisation Vasavya Mahila Mandali (VMM) in India’s southern state of Andhra Pradesh, describing its ten year care and support programme for children and families affected by AIDS.
With a population of more than 75 million, Andhra Pradesh has the highest rate of HIV prevalence in India, with some half a million people living with HIV. Inspired by Gandhi’s ideals of service to humanity and equality, VMM aims to promote the social, economic and political development of women, children and young people in vulnerable situations.
Back in 2000 when VMM first began its community-based approach to the epidemic, Dr Keerthi and her sisters found themselves up against extreme stigma and ignorance, struggling to even find people willing to work on the project. Their key challenge was to transform the overwhelmingly negative perceptions in the community into supportive attitudes in order to build a child-centric, sustainable care and support programme.
The wider impact of HIV and AIDS on children in developing countries doesn’t always garner the attention it should. In addition to losing a parent or parents and the prospect of their own health deteriorating, many children have no choice but to stop their education which in turn can lead to them living on the street, being forced to work from very young and at greater risk of drug addiction, trafficking or sexual abuse.
Overcoming entrenched discrimination doesn’t happen overnight – this was after all a time when children of people living with HIV were not allowed to study in local schools, when HIV positive people were not allowed to use public toilets or communal water sources; when healthcare professionals would not assist HIV positive women to give birth safely. VMM certainly had its work cut out to tackle the social exclusion of affected children and their families.
According to Dr Keerthi, and echoing Gandhi, “change should come from us and then it has many miles to go.” VMM began by initiating the setting up of community support groups for people facing stigma and then expanded to similar peer support clubs for children and schools as well as for grandmothers who were shouldering most of the care associated with children who found themselves orphaned by HIV. The “grannies” have proved themselves to be fantastic advocates and their speaking out and sharing of their experiences has led to a direct improvement in the health of their grandchildren, improving adherence to ART, anti TB therapy and better nutrition.
Over the course of a decade, VMM – together with its 17 partner NGOs and supported by the Alliance – has reached more than 50,000 children and families affected by HIV, including the setting up of a leading network for orphans and street children who are trained in life skills, child and property rights, and how to lobby different stakeholders to address children’s concerns.
In the ten years that VMM has spent building resilience, India has made swift progress economically and Andhra Pradesh has contributed significantly to this growth. Serious challenges in the areas of health, education and gender equity remain however, and nowhere more so than in the country’s HIV response.