COTS are lined up neatly in four first-floor rooms of the two-storey building standing on a half-acre plot of land in Bhugaon village, 12 km from Pune. From the stuffed teddy bears in one room to the school books and writing material in the others, the rooms appear to be any other hostel dormitory, except for the tiny medicine bottles tucked away near the bedsides or perched on switchboards. A sad similarity connects the 51 inmates of this shelter-cum-special school — they are all orphans, all HIV-positive.
Operated by the government-supported NGO Manavya, the shelter is home to HIV-positive youngsters aged two to 18 years.
On the eve of World AIDS Day Tuesday, Sudhanshu Shinde, 18, is excited and nervous. In a few months, he will shift to another hostel to live independently, having been in a shelter home all his life. A commerce student, he wants to become a company secretary, something he had assumed was an impossible dream three years ago. Ever since he came in touch with the government’s Child Welfare Committee (CWC) in 2012, following which he came to Manavya, that dream has been racing to fruition.
“Once I start earning, I will take care of my younger brother,” he says. Both brothers are HIV-positive, the virus transmitted from their parents in Sangli. Both parents are now no more.
Set up in 1997 by Vijayatai Lawate to help HIV-infected children of sex workers, Manavya gradually expanded to include any HIV-positive child orphaned by the disease. “A decade ago, the death rate in HIV infections was high.
The NGO’s only aim was to allow these children a dignified death,” recollects Shamshuddin Shaikh, the institute’s superintendent.
After shifting location five times in the first three years, forced to leave by locals once they heard about the HIV-positive children, Lawate purchased a plot in Bhugaon. After facing a year-long resistance by locals, Lawate’s team was able to convince people that the disease is non-communicable and that the children posed no threat.
Having started in a single room with only till Class VII, 15 HIV-positive children study in the in-house school today alongside living in the upstairs dorms. As many as 36 children who have completed Class VII continue to live here but study in nearby high schools, and about 50 children from nearby areas, who do not have the virus, attend school at Manavya.
Deepali, in Class VII, is best friends with Yashraj and Lokendra, both her age. Lokendra lives with his labourer parents in Bhugaon. Deepali’s HIV status has failed to affect their friendship. The three squat together and solve mathematical problems, giggling.
From the age of 10, the in-house students are taught about HIV, how it spreads, what it can do to their body and how to tackle society while battling their disease. By the time the students turn 18, they make an informed decision on whether to reveal their HIV status to others. They also have to step out and start earning their own bread and butter.
To help them along, the teenage students are trained in stitching, arts and bag-making. Their products are sold, the profits deposited in bank accounts created for each one. “Like pocket money,” smiles Shaikh.
Sometimes, benevolent people offer sponsorships. Like one 18-year-old girl who could study confectionery and bakery, Sudhanshu’s company secretary course will be sponsored.
At least four young couples tied the knot at the shelter home, having grown up in the hostel. “Love is a complex issue for them,” says counsellor Bhagyashree Kadam. “These children do not understand relations of family or spouse. For them, love is confusing because they have lived with kids all their lives,” she adds.
To combat HIV and to keep the children’s CD4 count high, a huge timetable instructs staffers on what items are to be given to children at six different timings. As children finish lunch by 2 pm, 13-year-old Vicky Shinde drags himself to the washing area. He is the latest entrant at the home, and along with HIV, he suffers from congenital leg movement problem and poor mental growth. In Class I, he keeps forgetting the Hindi alphabets learnt the previous day. Project coordinator Aniket Joshi looks after him, but so do half a dozen children. “He is our joker,” Sonia, 14, says fondly.
The children are also quick to refuse a packet of chocolates. “They cannot afford to spoil their teeth. Dentists are usually not willing to operate fearing transmission of virus,” says Pallavi Shinde, administrative officer at Manavya. Sudhanshu winks, “I went to my uncle’s house for a wedding. I ate a laddoo there.”
Funds are a problem, with the government paying only Rs 1,100 per child per month as opposed to Manavya’s actual need of Rs 4,000-5,000 per month. “We are planning to expand our capacity to 100 children. A proposal has been sent to the women and child development department,” adds Shinde.
The organisation has been pushing the teens to make career choices, from police officer to engineer to baker. The children, though now cocooned in the shelter, will survive in the outside world, say the staffers.
There is one girl, Aaradhna, about to turn 18., who everyone is worried for. Her limbs are paralysed on one side and she has “simply lost the will” to study. Principal Shezwal says, “I might adopt her.” Shezwal’s family sells vegetables, but her elder son has promised to take care of Aaradhna, she adds.
(Names have been changed to protect the identity of HIV-positive individuals)