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Bridging the education gap

HIV affected and infected children in Manipur are benefiting from a remarkable initiative that ensures they can afford to stay in school. Donations by small business firms and philanthropic individuals pay for school fees, books, uniforms, shoes, etc, channelled through the Manipur Network of Positive People (MNP+), reports Chitra Ahanthem

  • Globally, at the end of 2007, there were 2 million children living with HIV around the world while an estimated 370,000 children became newly infected with HIV.
  • Of the 2 million people who died of AIDS during 2007, more than one in seven were children. Every hour, around 31 children die as a result of AIDS. (2008 AIDS Epidemic Update)
  • In Manipur, according to the latest epidemiological report given out by the Manipur State AIDS Control Society (May 2008), out of a total of 29,602 positive cases, 2,978 are between 0-20 years.

When 7-year-old Abe comes back from school, she scowls upon entering the one-room shack that she shares with her family comprising a grandmother, three other siblings, an aunt and an uncle. Her grandmother laughs it off saying it must be the summer heat, but Abe insists that she feels embarrassed about having visitors see the one-room house that has two beds, a wooden cupboard for holding clothes, a sewing machine and a rack that has utensils stacked on it.

Life has not been kind to either Abe or her grandmother, Phairenbam Ongbi Memcha who was widowed when she was just 25. “I did whatever manual labour came my way to raise my children and had no idea of this thing called HIV/AIDS till my son passed away in 2001. He was not into drug use but the doctors later told me that it could have been from the blood transfusions that my daughter-in-law had during her deliveries. After my son passed away, my daughter-in- law left the children with me and went back to her parental home. My youngest grandchild was then only eight months old and I brought them up single-handed.”

Memcha, though, has no time to grieve over her life. “If I just sat at home and wailed, would it help?” she asks as she walks to the roadside hotel at Moirang Lamkhai where she is a helper earning anywhere between Rs 60-100 for a day’s work that runs from six in the morning to seven at night. “My earnings were never enough to keep the family going but what pained me the most was my inability to pay school fees for the children,” she says, scrubbing the utensils piled before her.

Memcha got some support in the form of monthly rations of nutritional components of food like milk, dal and eggs for her grandchildren through a project that gave such items worth Rs 350 every month, but would often fail to give school fees well on time. “They would want new school uniforms at the onset of every academic year which was not possible for me at all.”

But starting from this year, the total cost of Abe’s education is being met through an education initiative started by the Manipur Network of Positive People (MNP+) which has pooled in financial and material support for affected children like Abe, from individuals and small business firms. The financial contributions range from Rs 200 to Rs 10,000 while many have contributed in the form of school dresses and bags, stationary items, shoes and school books. The support from the initiative is only for Abe but it means that her grandmother can now allocate the money used to meet Abe’s expenses earlier, to her siblings.

“Our initiative is not within the framework of any existing project but was borne out of the needs that we saw when it came to children infected and affected by HIV/AIDS,” says Ameeta Sougaijam who is co-ordinating the process by raising funds. Ameeta is a former teacher and wife of the late L Lilabanta Singh, who was a founding member of MNP+ and an activist who called for addressing the needs of people living with HIV/AIDS.

According to Ameeta, a survey by MNP+ in 2004 showed that more than 500 children affected or infected by HIV/AIDS had no access to any care and support mechanisms except for the free antiretroviral drugs they received. “At the beginning of the academic year, we started out by supporting 40 infected children. We had to include five more who had lost their parents to HIV/AIDS and were not able to continue their studies. The children were selected on a need basis keeping our own financial resources in mind.”

Jhalajit M Luwang, an MNP+ member who is involved with the initiative retraces the journey of reaching out to people to support the cause of the children. “Getting the initiative on its feet took a few years. We started out with a raffle in 2008, selling tickets for a lottery. We kept back some money from that in a bank so it could accumulate interest, and started approaching people personally for more funds.”

Contributions first came in from people who were working in the HIV/AIDS sector. Their response emboldened the team at MNP+ to approach small business firms. “Initially, donors wanted to gauge if we put their donations to good use, but later there were some who chided us for not approaching them sooner,” says Jhalajit, laughing at the memory. Ameeta chips in to say that the team has been approached by business firms who do not want to go public about their contributions. “You know what is most likely to happen in a place like Manipur; they fear getting calls for “donations” by force,” she says.

Five months into the initiative now, MNP+ organised a Philanthropist Convention in April 2009 to bring together the donors and the parents/guardians of the children. “Our aim was to give a platform where the parents/guardians could share with the donors the changes that had been wrought in the lives of the children” says L Deepak Singh, MNP+ president.

Every month, there is a meeting of the parents/guardians of the children to address any emerging issues. At the last such meeting the guardians discussed among themselves why some were consistently absent at the monthly meetings and asked MNP+ to organise a health check-up for the children as well as for the infected parents.

“Our greatest challenge is to ensure that there is a constant engagement in the process. We do not want the guardians to become dependent and shirk all responsibilities. That’s why we started out by saying that the cost involved in school fees will be reimbursed by us once they pay for it themselves,” says Jhalajit.

Ameeta says that sometimes guardians know about other support mechanisms but continue to seek support from MNP+, as they are unwilling to disclose the HIV status of their children. For example, a private school (Albert English High School) has its own policy of waiving school fees of children living with HIV/AIDS. “We found about 12 children studying there but the guardians of only five of them were prepared to disclose their status and so we had to cover for the rest.” Ameeta says that the children often do not know their own HIV status and the guardians are at a total loss to know how to cope when the children get to know later.

A person who has contributed a set of 12 school uniforms for the initiative says on the grounds of anonymity that he has always wanted to be part of something positive in the state. “Every day you hear of killings and extortions while the issue of children gets little attention. I do not think it is important that my name is mentioned. Next year I will contribute more and will talk to my other friends about how they can be a part of this initiative as well,” he says.

For Lhinboi Haokip who is herself HIV-positive and has four children of her own, “being a part of the initiative is my way of thanking Jesus for giving me a healthy life. My husband died before we even knew of ART but I have benefitted a lot from the companionship provided by MNP+ over the years. I have a strong family unit that supports me financially and emotionally and my contribution to the education initiative is only an extension of support to the second family that MNP+ has become.”

Ameeta sums up the initiative saying, “We could not deny the felt needs of the children and though we have no major financial resources, we are ambitious enough to dream about bringing in additional components like coaching classes for certain subjects. May be we will ourselves give that component on a voluntary basis. All that matters is that the children are not denied.”

(Chitra Ahanthem writes on issues around HIV/AIDS and drug use, gender and conflict. She is based in Imphal and writes for The Imphal Free Press (Manipur) and the Health and Development Network based in Chiang Mai, Thailand)

InfoChange News & Features, June 2009