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Nettnin: The Children Left Behind - AIDS Orphans

The Children Left Behind – AIDS Orphans

By Sonia Nettnin

“Peter in Uganda, has a father who suffers from HIV/AIDs. In this picture he drew, the monster is AIDS. In the corner, Peter’s siblings cry and his mother prays by his father’s hospital bed. “I face problem of clothes,” he says. “I face problem of discrimination in the family and community. I face problem of my brothers and sisters are not schooling.”

The exhibit, ''The Children Left Behind – AIDS Orphans Around the World,'' opened its U.S. tour in Chicago.

The display shows the children orphaned from acquired immune deficiency syndrome, the virus known as AIDS. The multimedia exhibit focuses on the children of Cambodia, Guatemala, India, South Africa, the United States, and Uganda. Catholic Relief Services, an international relief and development agency, sponsors the exhibit. The photographers who contributed to the exhibit are: Ricardo Reitmeyer, David Snyder, Sean Sprague, Sr. Ann Dugan, and Nerenda Eid.

Through video footage, virtual information and panel displays, the exhibit brings awareness to this worldwide, social issue. Moreover, it dispels misconceptions about the disease. It is not uncommon for parents to abandon children diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Educational programs about the virus can help parents; and their family and community members understand the virus and dispel their misconceptions about the disease.

By 2010, estimates reveal children orphaned by AIDS will reach 25 million. In many societies, death and diagnosis within families bring social stigma and discrimination. In several countries, children are responsible for their sick parents and siblings. For families in poverty, money for retroviral drugs is a challenge when food and clothing is difficult. Societal rejection compounds their misery. AIDS destroys people, but it devastates cultures and economies.

Mebbo from Kamwokya, Uganda writes in his poem about AIDS: “Where else can one hide / I occupy the whole world / I do not forgive / At any one moment / The wise have tried getting rid of me / But from year to year / I multiply.”

Every country deals with specific problems associated with HIV/AIDS. India, the seventh largest country in the world, has a population of 1,065,070,606 (July 2004 est.). It ranks second to China for the world’s most populous countries. Every year, 3.97 million people in India suffer from HIV/AIDS, a figure comparable to the number of people who live in Los Angeles. Annually, 310,000 Indian people die from it. India has one of the fastest growing infection rates.

In India, some people treat the infected orphans as morally inferior. The orphans are considered a disgrace. The exhibit explained: “Indian women and children affected by HIV/AIDS often feel condemned, going through their daily lives with a modernized equivalent of the scarlet letter, and facing discrimination that is deeply embedded in ignorance and misinformation.”

In South Africa, which has a total population of 42,718,530, a 2001 estimate, shows the number of people with HIV/AIDS is five million, or 11.7 per cent of South Africa’s total population. Every year, the country has 360,000 deaths and children orphaned by it total 1.1 million, or 2.6 per cent of the total population. The exhibit explains: “Some estimates are that one quarter of the entire population of sub-Saharan Africa will die from AIDS in the next 20 years.”

Around Durbin, an initiative called the Sinosizo project provides home-based care and orphan support. On display from the Sinosizo project is a memory box. Families create boxes which contain items meaningful to them and their family’s history. The box is a medium for memories of loved ones and can help families prepare for death. If orphans search for their identity, then the box provides a space and place for discovery. Their exploration is hope for the future.

Carol from Nakamoga, Uganda writes: “AIDS has killed my parents and guardians and it is going to kill me…I don’t have anyone AIDS is killing Uganda who brought it?”

With a population of 26,404,543, Uganda experiences 84,000 deaths annually and the number of children orphaned total 940,000, or 3.6 per cent of Uganda’s total population.

The exhibit explains: “Uganda, the ‘Pearl of Africa,’ has been plagued by decades of dictatorship, military coup d’etats, and civil conflict.” As a result, these political conflicts destroyed the physical and social infrastructure of the country. These problems bring long-standing psychological effects also. Children face caring for sick parents. Child-headed households are responsible for other siblings, so they may not have time or money for school. Herbert, 13, from Kampala, writes that he looks for food to feed his sisters and brothers. He has no time for friends and feels a loss of hope.

In Cambodia, eleven per cent of orphans lost their parents to AIDS. By 2010, it will increase to thirty per cent. With a population of 13,363,421, children orphaned total 52,000 and HIV/AIDS total 12,000 annually. A 2001 estimate reveals 170,000 Cambodians have HIV/AIDS, or 1.3 per cent of the total population.

The exhibit explains that “Cambodia suffered from years of genocide, war and famine.” As a result, “the Cambodian people continue to struggle with poverty and the profound human, social, and economic effects of prolonged conflict and isolation.”

In a country where children take care of their elderly parents, families victimized by HIV/AIDS leave the elderly to raise their HIV-positive grandchildren. Since income opportunities are scarce for the elderly, girls may be taken out of school to care for sick family members. Moreover, they manage domestic chores.

The centuries old Mayan culture of Guatemala has a total population of 14,280,596. People who suffer from HIV/AIDS totals 67,000 annually and the disease orphans 32,000 children annually. Many parents and families abandon HIV-positive children and their rejection brings despair.

In May 2003, the parents of Samanta found out their daughter’s diagnosis: HIV-positive. They left her immediately. A picture shows Samanta, skin and bones. St. Joseph’s Orphanage, which supports 48 children, cared for Samanta. Through social programs, the society can be educated about the virus.

HIV/AIDS causes epic levels of devastation. Through education and funding, these families can have basic, life needs, which include antiretroviral drugs.

If the world does not face this indiscriminate virus, then the alternative is catastrophe.


More information about the display can be found at After the U.S. tour, the exhibit could become a worldwide tour.


Sonia Nettnin is a freelance writer. Her articles and reviews demonstrate civic journalism, with a focus on international social, economic, humanitarian, gender, and political issues. Media coverage of conflicts from these perspectives develops awareness in public opinion.

Nettnin received her bachelor's degree in English literature and writing. She did master's work in journalism. Moreover, Nettnin approaches her writing from a working woman's perspective, since working began for her at an early age.

She is a poet, a violinist and she studied professional dance. As a writer, the arts are an integral part of her sensibility. Her work has been published in the Palestine Chronicle, Scoop Media and the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. She lives in Chicago.

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