When classes opened across Vietnam on August 17, few students were as excited or as nervous as a group of 15 HIV-positive children who had finally been given permission to attend school. For the past two years, the Ho Chi Minh City orphanage where they live had been lobbying to enroll them in a public primary school. Now that the day had arrived, the children were so excited that many were up before the sun, already dressed in the new clothes the nuns had bought for the special occasion.
The school day, however, ended in tears. In fact, it never really began. When the orphans arrived at the gates of An Nhon Dong Elementary School, parents who had been informed ahead of time about the new arrivals grabbed their children and fled. As word spread through the neighborhood, more parents hurried to the school to get their children. As the orphans waited together on the playground to learn if they would be allowed inside, several adults loudly let it be known that they would never let their children sit in the same class with them. "We survived the French bombings and the American bombings," says 70-year old Nguyen Thi Thuoc, who kept her two grandchildren out of the school, which is not far from the entrance to the famous Cu Chi tunnels built by the Vietnamese during the wars. "I'd rather be bombed to death than die slowly of AIDS."
The younger ones, says Sister Nguyen Thi Bao, who had walked the children ranging from ages 6 to 15 to school, were too little too understand. But the older ones knew all too well the reason for the comments and the stares. "They drove us away," one of the children later said. "They hate us. We got the disease from our parents. It's not our fault." With the school balking and classrooms now mostly empty, Sister Bao thought it best to take the children back to the Mai Hoa Center where they live rather than endure more hurt. The center was the first AIDS hospice in Vietnam. But since the introduction of lifesaving antiretroviral medications, few come there to die anymore. The sanctuary-like setting, run by the Roman Catholic Church, has become a home to HIV-positive orphans and those who have no where else to go. "I thought it would be a happy day for them," says Sister Bao, "but it turned out to be a day of sadness."
Discrimination against people living HIV/AIDS is nothing new. But the irony in this case is that Vietnam has some of the most sweeping HIV/AIDS laws in the world, says Jesper Morch, the UNICEF representative in Vietnam. Children cannot be barred from school because they or any of their family members have HIV/AIDS. The law also states that employers cannot fire nor can doctors refuse to treat anyone because of their HIV status. Even the laws in the United States are not as far reaching.
Unfortunately, attitudes on the street are not so easily changed. Unlike the epidemic in parts of Africa, where the virus has cut a large swath through entire communities and few have been untouched, the number of HIV-positive persons in Vietnam is less than one percent. Most of the estimated 300,000 people who have contracted the virus are intravenous drug users and sex workers. Its association with "social evils" says Morch, makes it tough to combat the myths and ignorance around AIDS. "You can have wonderful policies and wonderful legislation," Morch adds, but without a proper campaign on the ground, "you'll have trouble enforcing them."
Efforts to enroll HIV-positive children in Vietnam's public schools have had dismal results. Even where teachers and local officials have gone door-to-door to educate parents, very few children have ever successfully been enrolled and actually attended. "Parents have their own arguments and it's hard to answer them," says Nguyen Van Chan, the beleaguered principal of An Nhon Dong Elementary School. "We all know how HIV is transmitted but who can give complete assurances?" he asks.
Troublingly, Ho Chi Minh City is considered the most progressive region in the country in terms of HIV/AIDS advocacy. The government AIDS committee runs public education campaigns and training programs for local officials. Last year, it supported the decision to allow some of the orphans from the Mai Hoa AIDS Center to attend the school's weekly flag ceremony and occasionally sit at the end of the table in some classes, says Le Truong Giang, deputy chairman of the Ho Chi Minh City Provincial AIDS Committee. Giang concedes that after last week's unfortunate episode, those efforts were clearly not enough.
For now, the 15 children will continue to be schooled at the orphanage. An Nhon Dong Elementary has agreed to provide textbooks and send teachers to the center, which some might see as a victory. The children, however, know it is nothing of the sort. Several broke down, says Sister Bao, when they heard that once again they would not be allowed to go to a "normal" school.
What happened to the children at the Mai Hoa Center illustrates how much work the Vietnamese government, as well as international development and aid agencies, have left to do, says Morch. More awareness campaigns are obviously needed. Government officials and celebrities need to photographed hugging AIDS patients and playing with them out on the sports field, he says. But Morch is encouraged by the fact that as soon as the incident was made public, the central government fired off a stern warning to the local authorities that they had violated the law, and they wanted assurances that this will not be repeated. "The law is crystal clear and the policy is crystal clear," says Morch, which shows incredible progress. "Now it really is a question of parents understanding. They need to be educated, and we have a long ways to go on this in Vietnam."