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Last Updated: Monday, 15 March, 2004, 02:43 GMT
HIV children battle back to school
By Geeta Pandey
BBC correspondent in Kerala

The children's grandfather, GeeVarghese John, with Bensy and Benson
Bensy and Benson are delighted to return to school
"People look at my children with hatred. But it's not their fault - their father made the mistake."

GeeVarghese John is watching his grandchildren - Benson, 7, and Bensy, 9 - strap their satchels to their backs before the daily trek to school in the southern Indian state of Kerala.

Although school is only two kilometres from home, half an hour's journey on foot, it has taken the pair a full two years to get there.

The children are HIV positive and getting into school has not been an easy journey.

As they see the children off to school, John and his wife, Shalini Kutty, tell me their story.

'He infected her'

Since their daughter and her husband died they have been the main carers for the children.

When they went looking for a groom for their young and beautiful daughter, Mary John, they didn't know much about K C Chandy.

Local shopkeeper George
They share mangoes and candy and drink water from the same tumbler. What's the guarantee the disease won't spread?
Local shopkeeper George

"We didn't know he had HIV," John says. "When Mary got married, she went to live with him in Bombay. She was surprised to see his shelves full of medicines, but every time she questioned him, he would beat her up.

"He had no idea what was in store for her. He infected her, and the children were born with HIV."

As if that wasn't bad enough, once their HIV status was known, the children were thrown out of school when parents of their classmates objected to their presence.

George, who has a shop just outside the school, voices the parents' concerns.

"They are children, they don't know anything. They share mangoes and candy and drink water from the same tumbler.

"What's the guarantee the disease won't spread?" he asks.

Fight for rights

It has taken two years of fighting, a hunger strike by Bensy and Benson and intervention by the president of India and the Health Ministry to get the children back into school.

I want to be a policeman when I grow up so that I can beat up everyone
Benson
The school authorities say 35% of the parents still oppose the idea. Kerala has a very high HIV infection rate with one in every 1,000 carrying the deadly virus.

And health officials in the state say their numbers are increasing on a daily basis.

For Bensy and Benson, going to school is the happiest moment of the day.

Their faces light up as they enter the school, to the welcoming chatter of their classmates. Bensy's in third grade while Benson is in second.

K Shobhana is the school principal.

She tells me even after the children were taken back, they weren't allowed to mingle with the others.

Bensy and Benson
What will happen to them when I die? Who will look after them then?
Children's grandfather, GeeVarghese John
She shows me the dusty gloomy corner in her office where Bensy and Benson had to take their lessons for the first month.

They watched the other kids from behind the window, she says, they were very unhappy. But now they're more cheerful.

Bensy is a "very good girl", well liked by her teachers, she says. She laughs when asked about Benson. "He's a trouble-maker, a tricky boy."

Bensy the good girl is shy and bursts into giggles when I try to speak to her.

Turning her huge eyes towards me, all she'll tell me is that she's very happy to be back in school.

But Benson is more sure of himself. "I want to be a policeman when I grow up so that I can beat up everyone," he says.

For the moment, the smiles are back. But Grandfather John's eyes get misty as he contemplates the future.

"I'm getting old," he tells me, "what will happen to them when I die? Who will look after them then?"


SEE ALSO:
India minister hugs HIV children
29 Sep 03  |  South Asia
Aids threat alarms Indian PM
26 Jul 03  |  South Asia
India sees big HIV/Aids rise
25 Jul 03  |  South Asia
India fights to promote condoms
15 Jul 03  |  South Asia
India 'can prevent Aids epidemic'
14 Nov 02  |  South Asia
India and Aids - dodging the issue?
25 Jul 03  |  South Asia


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