He had just finished reading the school prayer, ‘Dear God, be with me today’. Almost immediately after, he was asked to leave the school for being HIV-positive. That was five months ago. Now, despite the West Bengal administration stepping in, this seven-year-old’s future — and that of his family — looks bleak.
He had been studying in a private school in the Bishnupur area of South 24 Parganas near his home. Despite the information regarding his condition being confidential, it leaked to other parents and almost a hundred of them signed a petition demanding that the boy be asked to leave the school.
The harassment didn’t end there. The boy’s maternal grandmother, who teaches Bangla in the same school, was forced to take an HIV test to prove her “purity” and has since then been a target of repeated verbal abuse.
Officials say school authorities have promised to let the boy return after State Women and Child Development Minister Sashi Panja ordered an investigation and asked the district Child Welfare Committee (CWC) to intervene. But his mother says things aren’t so simple.
“The school headmaster hasn’t contacted me directly. But what I have heard is that other parents are still unwilling to send their wards to school if my son returns,” said the mother who had tested positive in January.
“I was told that they are thinking of setting up a different room where he’ll sit alone, away from the others. That isn’t acceptable to me,” said the mother, who is working with an NGO engaged in spreading awareness about HIV.
The boy’s father was detected with HIV in May 2014. Almost immediately after, people stopped coming to the stationary shop that he ran. Now he works as a helper in a garments store in Kolkata to make ends meet.
“It was always difficult for us. We have planted a lemon tree and a chikoo tree, and rear some ducks. But otherwise, whatever money we get is almost entirely spent on my son’s education,” said his mother.
After the family realised that their seven-year-old was HIV positive, the mother immediately informed the headmaster. “It’s important that the school authorities know. If he gets hurt and starts bleeding, it’s important that he’s handled carefully so that he doesn’t infect anyone else. But I don’t know how the information that I gave only to the school headmaster reached others,” she added.
For the past five months, the boy has been trying to study in their tiny, single-room, thatch hut. On most days, his mother said, he says very little, choosing instead to play with his kite.
On Thursday evening, by the time he woke up from his nap, his elder brother, who isn’t infected, has already gone out to play. “I want to go back to school. I liked studying and being with other friends. I see them once in a while, in their school uniforms and I feel very sad,” said the seven-year-old.
The problem, the boy’s family reiterated, was one of insufficient awareness. “I have been in the community for years and I have also taught in the school for a while. But when people learnt that my daughter and grandson are HIV-positive, suddenly I was a witch for them. They called me names and forced me to take an HIV test, all the while berating me and humiliating me,” said the boy’s 55-year-old grandmother.
Sudhip Mondal, whose son studies in the same school, said, “If the boy comes back, we will not let our son study with him. This is not why we spend so much money and send him to a private school.”
The school’s headmaster, Sanjib Naskar, said, “There are other parents who initially didn’t want him to study in the school. But we never asked his family to not send the boy to school. He has not been coming of his own accord. If he comes back, he will not be harassed.”
Women and Child Development Minister Shashi Panja said, “The school has to take the child back. Afterwards, if the boy’s family wants to change schools in the next academic year, that is up to them. Such ostracisation of an HIV-positive family is just not going to happen. But the larger problem is about awareness, which has to be solved through acceptance. We have convened a meeting of the local child welfare committee and district administration officials with the other parents in the school to solve this.”