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The Way to a Life for AIDS Orphans

Gao Yaojie is 77 years old and a former professor at the Henan Institute of Traditional Chinese Medicine. A gynecologist, she is known in China as: "The first person to promote AIDS awareness in rural regions." In 1996 she embarked on a self-funded AIDS prevention campaign.  In the past seven years she has been to more than 100 villages and visited 1,000 or more AIDS victims in Henan Province. She has distributed 300,000 free copies of her book Prevention and Treatment of AIDS and Venereal Disease, and printed 610,000 copies of the pamphlet How to Prevent AIDS. In 2000 she began focusing on helping children orphaned by AIDS, and has offered financial aid to 164 AIDS orphans. In 2001, she won the Global Health Council Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights for her "Contribution towards improving public health and preventing AIDS." In 2002, she was named Star of Asia by Business Week, and was ninth of Time Magazine's 25 Asian heroes. In 2003 she won the Ramon Magsay Award for Public Service. Gao Yaojie has been commended by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for her active distribution of educative materials on AIDS prevention in China's rural areas.

In April 1996 I received, in my capacity as gynecologist, the first AIDS patient in Henan Province. She stretched out her wasted hands to me crying: "Doctor Gao, why am I incurable selling my blood? I don't want to die and leave my husband and children…" The cold sorrow sparked off by this pathetic plea has since stayed in my heart.

The death of a couple infected with AIDS generally makes orphans of one to three children of school age, who then have no guarantee of life, let alone education. A great number of children have been orphaned by AIDS, and if they do not receive education they will become illiterate, ignorant of the law, and may eventually threaten the peace and tranquility of our society.

When people ask me what is so urgent about AIDS prevention I tell them it is the increasing number of AIDS orphans. High priority must be given to addressing this problem or it will bring disaster to the nation.

Orphans: Money Is Not All They Lack

Two years ago, AIDS orphans were generally taken care of by their relatives but they still needed financial aid. From the latter half of 1999 to the first half of 2002, I sent over 80,000 yuan to various orphans, but it rarely reached them. In 2001, I sent 1,100 yuan to Gao Li and Gao Yan in Henan, but their uncle gambled most of it away, leaving the two children without money to buy salt for three months. He also took possession of their government subsidy -- a sack of flour, and a pile of coal.

I sent 13-year-old Feng Tuanwei his three-semester 600 yuan tuition fee, but his uncle took possession of the money and put the boy to work digging sand on the river bank.

Some guardians of AIDS orphans expect them to labor or go out begging to pay for their keep. Boys of 13 or 14 are forced to become coolies and laborers on construction sites or by the riverside, and are often beaten. Life for girl orphans is even worse. Some are coerced into marrying men much older than they are that have difficulty finding a wife, and some are even tricked into working in the sex industry.

In my opinion, offering financial aid to AIDS orphans is not enough as they lack much more than money. What these children most need is the love and concern of all strata of society, and the chance to receive an education.

A Solution: Dispersive Adoption

To a large number of people, AIDS implies illicit sex leading to death, so its victims are the object of fear, discrimination and hostility. AIDS is therefore a social as well as medical problem. Most AIDS victims in the Central Plains became infected with and died of AIDS from selling blood to eke out their meager earnings, but their children are healthy and innocent. None of the 160 orphans that I have helped are HIV carriers. It is proven that AIDS does not spread within families as a matter of course.

Many have raised the suggestion that the government opens orphanages for these children, but I don't agree with this solution. For one thing China does not have the resources to offer accommodation to every orphan. Also, harsh living conditions have made many orphans listless and apathetic. There are some that harbor resentment towards society, and if all are kept in segregation they are likely to share and foster this negativity.

A friend from our hometown in Shandong Province once came to see me, saying that he wanted to adopt an AIDS orphan from Henan Province called Gao Chuang. In June 2002, Gao Chuang was renamed Chen Xiangge and became a pupil at Baiji Primary School in Cao County, Shangdong Province. Altogether six AIDS orphans from Henan have been adopted by families from Shandong.

I believe dispersive adoption is the best solution to the problem of AIDS orphans. Leading a normal life in an ordinary household means friends and classmates for these children. They may thus distance themselves from the pain that AIDS has caused them and to focus on study. There must, however, be an appropriate selection process for adopters. I have three basic requirements: that adoptive parents be kind and reliable; economically stable; and that they ensure the child finishes at least senior middle school.

Difficulties that Still Exist

Dispersive adoption has its problems. Rumors have spread that I use adoption as a front and sell orphans into slavery for big money. These rumors exert pressure on both adopters and the local government. The dispersive adoption alternative is, therefore, no easy option.

More depressing still, on going to see the children whose HIV/AIDS infected parents have written and asked me to look after them, they deny their parents are AIDS victims for fear of discrimination from classmates and others. I recently met with Vice Premier Wu Yi. When she asked what the biggest difficulty is in dealing with AIDS orphans, my answer was truth-evasion. If everyone were to be truthful, the problem of homes for orphans could be solved.

I know I cannot help every AIDS orphan, I can only try my very best.

Hu Jia graduated in 1996 and does environmental protection work at a nongovernmental organization named Friends of Nature. It was in 2001 that he first came into contact with AIDS patients and joined a non-governmental health education organization that raises AIDS awareness. He is currently helping to form organizations that will help AIDS orphans in Beijing and Shanghai.

(China Today  April 2, 2004)

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