Vietnam's HIV-Positive Orphans Face Discrimination

Vietnam has some of the most progressive anti-discrimination laws in the world when it comes to people with HIV. So when 15 HIV-positive children from an orphanage in Saigon finally got permission to go to first day of school last week, they hoped for the best. It didn't happen.

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It's back to school time in Vietnam, too. And it was supposed to be an exciting time for 15 HIV-positive students from the Mai Hoa Center near Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. The center is a shelter for people who are HIV-positive. The children, all of them orphans, won a three-year battle to attend public school near their home. They were set to start last week.

But, as NPR's Michael Sullivan reports, things didn't go according to plan.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Twelve-year-old Tuyen(ph) said she got up early last Monday, unable to sleep. Too excited, she says, about her first day at An Nhon Dong Elementary.

TUYEN: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: I wanted to go and learn, Tuyen says, and make new friends. But when we got to the school, the parents of the other children were just standing there, and then they started taking their children home. I was so sad, she says, because I knew they were scared of us, scared of our disease.

Sister Nguyen Thi Bao is responsible for the children at the Mai Hoa Center and led the fight to have them admitted to the public school just a short walk away.

Sister NGUYEN THI BAO (Mai Hoa Center): (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: I had a bad feeling when we got there, she says, because when we arrived, the parents just stared at us, but they wouldn't let their children enter. Then some who had, went inside and took their children out. After that, the principal came out, she says, and told us our children didn't have the right documents to attend class.

Sister BAO: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Sister Bao then made the decision to take the children home rather than subject them to more humiliation. They didn't cry in front of the others, she says. They waited until later.

Lei Kim Wa(ph) is one of the parents who pulled their children from school rather than have them attend with the orphans from Mai Hoa.

Ms. LEI KIM WA: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: I'm just afraid for my daughter, she says. I know the disease can be transmitted through blood, and I'm afraid what might happen if they bite other children, or if they fall and start bleeding on the playground. As adults, we can do things to avoid transmission, she says, but the children are too small to understand.

Nguyen Bik Nok(ph), a 41-year-old mother of two was even more blunt.

Ms. NGUYEN BIK NOK: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: If they're HIV-positive, they're going to die anyways, she says. They can survive maybe five or 10 years, but that's it, so there's no need for them to study. My daughter can become a teacher or something else useful to society, but these children cannot, she says. If you're going to teach them at all, teach them separately.

The irony here, says Jesper Morch, the Vietnam country rep for UNICEF, is that Vietnam has some of the best anti-discrimination laws in the world when it comes to HIV/AIDS.

Mr. JESPER MORCH (Vietnam Country Representative, UNICEF): The misconceptions, the myths and so on, they exist everywhere and at any time, and stigma and discrimination is close to unavoidable. It is much less here in Vietnam than what it used to be, but the story from Ho Chi Minh City shows that we still do have a long way to go and that it is very important that people understand.

SULLIVAN: Until everyone does understand, the 15 children from the Mai Hoa Center will be learning at the center, where classes started on Monday, a week late, taught by a few teachers on loan from the school and the community that rejected them.

Fourth-grader Cheng(ph) says she's okay with the idea and says she's not going back to that other school, even if the parents there do change their minds.

CHENG: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: The parents there don't understand this disease isn't our fault, she says. We got it from our parents. We've been taught how to be careful at school, how to play, but not too hard and to take care not to bleed. I went there to make friends, she says, but they didn't let me. I want to study here now, or at another school maybe, but not at An Nhon Dong.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Hanoi.

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