You may have heard about the story in the news, or perhaps on social media where it is being discussed and campaigned against intensely.
Not everyone feels the outraged expressed on social media however. Last week, the parents of the 6 year old boy’s classmates cheered when the provincial education minister Sandya Rajapaksa stated at a meeting: “We will not do an injustice to that child – we will give him a different school. And we will not do any injustice to your children so please bring them to school from tomorrow.”
The parents seemed more thrilled that boy who was falsely believed to be HIV positive was to be removed from the school their children attended than the fact that the child is in fact not HIV positive.
The story was a malicious rumour spread by the boy’s relatives who wished to malign the mother. Back-fence talk in the neigbourhood was that the boy’s father, who passed away recently, had died of AIDS, and that the mother and son had contracted the contagious and incurable disease. All of these rumours have been proved to be false, but the damage it has caused is nothing short of tragic.
The boy, a Grade 1 student, was expelled from his school in Kuliyapitiya. As the news of his expulsion spread and pressure was placed on authorities to help the child, the boy was placed in a new school. On the first day he was quite happy at the new institution and made new friends. The next day he found himself alone in his class, as the parents of his classmates protested against his admission by removing their children from the class.
The protest went on for a few days, as parents stood outside and harassed the teachers as well. Last week the protest came to an end as the parents were told the little boy will be placed in another school.
For a six year old boy, this entire episode is not only traumatic but has already affected his education. But there may be a silver lining on this depressingly dark cloud.
This is an eye-opener for Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is a low prevalence country for HIV AIDS. The number of people living with HIV is estimated to be 3,300. While much is being done by organisation, corporates and celebrities to raise awareness about HIV AIDS, little is still known about it in Sri Lanka; apart from it being an incurable disease.
With limited knowledge people have an irrational fear towards it. Many don’t understand how the disease is spread and stigmatization is high in Sri Lanka.
These graphs, from a UNAIDS report prove to what extent the stigmatisation exists.
According to this World Bank report: ‘Repeated surveys indicate continuing high levels of stigma towards PLWA [people living with AIDS] among all groups. Stigma and discrimination discourage PLWA and others who fear they may be infected from seeking health care or from being tested’.
The report also points out that Sri Lanka has alarming low levels of knowledge about HIV transmission. It goes on to say that as a result, ‘this increases the potential for HIV to spread as the groups surveyed are the populations engaging in riskier behavior’.
And that’s the bigger picture. The protest in Kuliyapitiya is a wake-up call. We need to step up the awareness campaigns, or we will have more to worry about than a child being expelled from school because he was falsely believed to be HIV positive.