Hesperian Health Guides
Chapter 2: Children need help to live with HIV
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HIV affects children when they are themselves infected, as is Lefa in Chapter 1, or because of how it affects their family, as in this story of a brother and 2 sisters in Zambia.
When their mother died of AIDS, Gideon was 14, Tanya was 10, and Charity was only 2. They had not seen their father much, and not at all since their mother became ill, as he was away working in the mines in South Africa. They suspected that, like their mother, he was dead too. Gideon and Tanya had left school in order to care for their mother and younger sister.
After their mother’s death, distant relatives on their father’s side offered to take in the girls but they were not willing to take Gideon. The children had only met these relatives once before and Gideon remembers how they refused to help his mother when she was sick. They spread rumors that she was a loose woman and most likely killed her husband by giving him AIDS or poisoning him. Gideon fears these “relatives” will work his sisters too hard and not care for them as family. He is resolved to keep the girls with him and look after them as best he can.
Gideon works as a day laborer on a nearby farm and Tanya sells extra produce they grow in their small plot. For a few seasons, Gideon had steady work and their garden prospered. They could afford to start Charity in school. But when the drought came they had little to fall back on. Like many of their neighbors, they ate less and often went to bed hungry. Charity had to stop attending school since they could not pay the fees. Gideon did what he could so Charity would have enough to eat, often going without food himself. But he worried when Charity began to lose weight.
When Charity falls ill, Gideon goes to the local food center set up to help the community in the drought’s second year. The group distributes seeds and food to those in need. There, he becomes friends with Beatrice, the woman who cooks for the program. Gideon trusts Beatrice with his worries about Charity, and Beatrice tells Gideon about a government clinic that sends trained health workers once a week to do health monitoring at the center. She suggests taking his sister to see them.
Beatrice does not tell him that the health workers also test and treat people for HIV. She cannot bring herself to ask if Charity had been tested after her mother died. She suspects Gideon is secretly worried about this but isn’t ready to talk about it. And she is right. Gideon fears his sister has HIV but he doesn’t want to discuss it with her or anyone else. He has faced people’s disapproval nearly all his life, starting when people blamed his mother for her own death and the death of his father. Thankfully, Charity does not test positive for HIV, and with more food, she gets stronger.
Over the next few months, Gideon became closer to Beatrice and her husband Charles. Charles works as a driver at the food center and he offers to teach Gideon how to drive. After Gideon gets his driver’s license, he finds work at another community organization helping people with HIV. Eventually, Gideon is able to put Charity back in school. He marries his childhood sweetheart, and with the support of the local church, he and his wife are becoming admirable parents and role models. He is proud of his ability to take care of his sisters and his wife. He feels a growing sense of hope and control over events in his family’s life.
Surviving children like Gideon, Tanya, Charity, and Lefa need to learn to live despite their heavy losses. Surprisingly, many do survive with remarkably strong spirits and the ability to thrive and contribute. With the help and protection of caring adults — from small, individual kindnesses to organized social programs — children infected and affected by HIV can grow up to become capable, respected members of the community. Because a child is the child of everyone, the future of these children is the future of our entire community.
All young children depend on their parents, older siblings and extended families for survival and well-being — and on their communities when families are stressed. When families go through difficult times, they often slip further into poverty and are less able to protect themselves from loss and harm. They may struggle for food, shelter, and basic resources, including time and patience to care for each other. Their children leave school, may not receive health care, and may experience abuse and violence.