Kerala's new untouchables
Across Kerala’s schools, HIV-positive children face a tough time in their quest for education.
BENCY AND BENSON came into the media spotlight five years ago when their quest for an education became a national question mark. Born to HIV-positive parents in Kerala’s Kollam district, the two children, ages 7 and 5 respectively, were in the care of their maternal grandparents after their parents died. When five schools refused them admission because they, too, were HIV-positive, their grandfather joined them in a day-long fast outside then Kerala Chief Minister AK Antony’s office. Antony intervened and got them admitted to a school on the outskirts of Kollam town. However, parents of other students protested, and stopped sending their wards to school. Finally, then President APJ Abdul Kalam intervened and on his direction the Kerala education department appointed teachers to conduct classes for Bency and Benson at their home at government expense.
In Kerala, Bency and Benson’s story is typical in everything but its ending. With its claim of 100 percent literacy, Kerala has no room in its schools for children with HIV. AIDS orphans as many of them are, disowned and ostracised by their families and the community at large, these children are becoming the state’s new untouchables.
Nine-year-old Sathyasai Jyothi was born with the virus. Ashakiran, a Kottayam-based home for women and children with HIV, took her in after she was orphaned. With her fourth standard examinations behind her, she gained admission this year to Class V in a government high school at Pampady near Kottayam. The school’s parent-teacher association reacted with a “unanimous resolution” against her admission and threats to withdraw their wards. When the headmistress refused to relent, protest marches and dharnas followed. Irked, the Ashakiran authorities decided not to send Jyothi to the school, which, ironically, was built in memory of the revolutionary writer, Ponkunam Varkey, a man who devoted his life to fighting prejudice.
This is not the first time Jyothi’s HIV-positive status has put her in the glare of cruel controversy. Ashakiran has three other HIVpositive children, all of them younger than Jyothi and studying at the Mar Dionysius Lower Primary School (MDLPS) in Pampady. After a World AIDS Day story on the children in a local newspaper, parents clustered at the school, demanding they be expelled. The state government and the state AIDS Control Society stepped in with an awareness campaign that roped in state Health Minister PK Sreemathy and former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. The parents remained adamant. Finally, it took family-by-family interventions by Education Minister MA Baby and social activist Sukumar Azhikode for the children to stay in school.
But after they finish Class IV, they will also have to face the same discrimination Jyothi has. Indeed, it is likely they already do. “The teachers tell the other children not to play with me. I sit all alone at school in a separate classroom,” one said, under promise of secrecy.
HIV/AIDS volunteers here can recount any number of instances where HIVpositive students have had trouble at their schools. “The sad plight of these children is perhaps symptomatic of the new forms of exclusion in Kerala society, one which has fought many battles to rid itself of social evils such as untouchability,” opines J. Devika of the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram. “Today, beyond the immediate concerns of the political discourse, HIV-positive persons and their children are victims of an emerging social disorder.” She says that attempts at reintegration have at best been cosmetic, and when local social and political pressures are activated, as happened at Pampady, the outcome may be disconcerting.
Benson and Bency’s circumstances, meanwhile, are truly difficult now. Their grandfather died two years ago, and the family has no source of income apart from their grandmother’s pension. Bency was admitted to Thiruvananthapuram Medical College Hospital two months ago. Someone told local television channels that she had died. Nearly all of them ran with the story straight away, and Bency got to watch her death’s “breaking news” on a television set in her ward. In a life shattered by loss,a hairline crack more. •