Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 13 March 2016





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

Infected: by myths and bias

Kuliyapitiya school entry incident highlights lack of health education and respect for privacy:

A village’s protest denied this child’s admission to school

Finally, the story of the child denied admission to a school in Kuliyapitiya has taken a positive turn. The child, whose mother is 'reportedly' HIV positive, became a target of a medieval form of punishment: ostracisation. He started schooling again, at a prestigious school in Kandy last week. The ostracisation may have offered him a lifetime opportunity and we cannot help but hope that someday, the victimized six-year-old will be in a position to educate some of those who are in charge of education and health in this country.

Following the unkind treatment meted out to the child, a horrifying performance by some Kuliyapitiya residents, the nation had to bear witness to another appalling performance by none other than Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam who proclaimed his desire to separate the mother from the child to ensure his 'own health' and future.

It is incredible that the person in charge of education in the country lacked basic understanding as to how transmission of the disease takes place, and above all, that timely introduction of preventive medication could ensure a child from being 'safe from HIV infection,' even if the mother was identified as a person living with HIV.

In this case, it has not been established that the mother is HIV positive. There is a lot of reliance on hearsay, largely based on some 'threatening' statements the woman had purportedly made instill fear among villagers. By now it is established that she has not attended any STD clinic and in reality, this stage-managed campaign by the villagers is aimed at achieving only one end: To have the woman and her partner driven out of the village because the villagers perceive them to be 'anti-social.'

Lack of education

The real tragedy is to find the Minister of Education who hails from the same electorate, unfortunately being a collaborator in the scheme. It is his electorate and his priority is to stand by his vote bank, irrespective of the consequences to a six-year-old whose life is yet to begin, in real terms. Another tragedy is the indication that both the minister and his electorate appear to be in dire need of sex education. Clearly, the minister also needs to fix his brazen lack of respect for privacy. He has been too busy insisting on the mother's 'HIV positive status' and attributing it to the Zonal Director of Education. It is most likely that the district's STD clinics are likely to have this information and not the Zonal Director of Education.

On March 6, Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, subsequent to his visit to the Malwatta Chapter, openly called for the separation of the child from the mother. He added the most unenlightened statement that went viral on social media that the child could be infected with HIV because he (child) slept on the same bed as his mother, insisting that the government would obtain a court ruling to separate them after which his educational needs will be taken care of by the State.

It would be unfair to assume that the whole of Kupiyapitiya ganged up against an innocent child and his mother. Such inhuman behaviour is impossible anywhere.

In reality, villagers say that the family is notorious and several members of the extended family are well-known in the area for their anti-social behavior. A 26-year-old youth from the same area explained that several family members were involved in 'nefarious' activities including selling of hooch and cannabis. "They are a menace," he said.

The villagers wanted the family driven out allegedly because of the mother's and her current partner's behaviour that had become problematic. When contacted, Kupiyapitiya Police confirmed about several recorded incidents involving the family members, including constraint quarrels and assaults among family members.

The woman's husband, and the father of the child, known as Anura, had died at the Mulleriyawa Base Hospital while being undergoing treatment. His body was not brought home. Instead, the remains were cremated in a sealed coffin, fuelling rumours.

Authoritative sources said that though speculated, there was no evidence to substantiate that the child's father died of a Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD).

Sources from Kuliyapitiya also told the Sunday Observer that the child used to misbehave during his Montessori days, including aggressive behaviour towards other children. This resulted in some of the parents ganging up against the child and soon, it became common knowledge. The villagers wanted the mother and her partner driven out of the village, and an attempt to admit the child to school was the opportunity they waited for. They built a platform, using purported words of his own mother to ostracize him as a child living with HIV.

Villagers' respond

Herath (60) who spoke to the Sunday Observer on the basis of anonymity is also from the same village. He said: "It is not about HIV but about bad parenting. The child is already aggressive and there are a number of incidents where fellow students have been scratched and bitten but him. It is good for the child to be placed under probationary care and to attend a school away from his village, where he can cut his links off the family and become a useful citizen."The child is already admitted to the hostel of the popular boys' school in Kandy and this is a good move, Herath said. 'It is good to take him out of his mother's sphere of influence," he said. Herath too is appalled by the reaction of the villagers towards the child but preferred to remain silent on the ministerial diatribe.

Villagers continue to allege that the child's mother continues to go around claiming that she had been in several relationships.

For them, the fear of being 'infected by the HIV virus' is real. But what is more real is their common ambition has the entire family driven out of Kuliyapitiya.

"People will be happy if the mother to be referred to a STD clinic," said Herath, who has no understanding that it is entirely a voluntary process and even a protesting village still cannot force a person to test herself for HIV status.

With an entire village's wrath targetting the family and a minister callously violating the privacy of the child's mother, the only silver lining had been the response of a school that embraced an ostracized child into their midst. At least, the story has a happy ending of sorts and positive lessons.


[Reduced stigma helps prevention]

According to Dayanath Ranatunga, Country Manager, UNAIDS Colombo, there is free HIV testing in Sri Lanka with the best medicines always available at the clinics.

A low incidence country, Sri Lanka's STD prevention program is considered one of the best in the Asia Pacific region.

"In Sri Lanka, deaths have declined but new infections have increased. By 2014, only 18% of the estimated persons living with HIV have sought treatment," he said.

Speaking at an awareness program at a recent awareness program at the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI), he said the target was to achieve 'zero new HIV infections, discrimination and AIDS- related deaths' by 2025. "The message is: HIV positive persons can live full lives. Their life expectancy does not change with continuous treatment and children can be treated to be HIV-free."

According to January 2016 statistics, Sri Lanka currently has 78 children living with AIDS.



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