By Key Correspondent Kunal D Patel
Over eighty children play without squabbling. Sounds like the school playground we all wanted but never experienced. Surprisingly, in an orphanage in Lopburi province, Thailand I am witness to such examples of human kindness.
Baan Gerda is approximately 80km from Lopburi town, taking up a vast amount of green space while acting as a home for children with HIV. It is a beautiful place full of wonderful trees, wonderful wildlife and – more importantly and refreshingly – wonderful people.
This is a place prepared to take in children who are shunned and stigmatised by their own families and people due to being HIV positive. Children who at some stage had no hope of survival are now full of life. In the playground they come up to me and give me flowers, attempt to speak whatever limited English they have and understand my pathetic attempts at speaking Thai in return.
I was brought here via the kind invitation of Karl Morsbach, the founder of Baan Gerda and Mike Thomas the orphanage’s director, after attending a screening of Thomas’ film Living with the Tiger at the New International School of Thailand, Bangkok a few days earlier. The film, which took three years to produce, shows what life is like for children at Baan Gerda and highlights how HIV stigma affects those we should be protecting: the young and defenceless.
Beliefs such as HIV is a result of childhood sin or that it can be spread by those with HIV playing with none infected children is prevalent amongst many communities in Thailand. This film exposes the impact these attitudes have on HIV positive children in a moving and compassionate way. Having seen the reaction it evoked in Bangkok, it is a story that should be shown wider within Thailand and abroad.
The film shows how greatly a child’s life can be affected when diagnosed with HIV, not due to the physical manifestations of the infection but the discrimination and lack of understanding associated with stigmatisation. However, it also makes one aware that those with HIV can and must be allowed to lead a life similar to those who are not infected.
In the incredible environment that is Baan Gerda these children do just that. Placing the children in houses that mimic extended family models, a sense of home is created. By being surrounded with people who genuinely love them, these children are visibly stronger both mentally and physically than when they first arrive.
I was used as a model in a hairdressing class run by volunteer hairdressers from Bangkok. My hair was affectionately washed by the children multiple times, conditioned beyond belief and blow dried to a crisp, allowing them to learn skills for potential work in the future. Of course, there are not always happy endings but at least every child here gets the chance to receive not only medical attention but the drugs that no pharmaceutical company can provide: independence, respect and love.
But Baan Gerda should not be alone in doing this, as the film expresses. Globally, HIV stigma is a huge issue and, in terms of quality of life, tackling it is as important as providing medication. There is no point in being able to survive a disease if you cannot survive within your own community. Living with the Tiger, as the name suggests, shows us that you can live with a disease and, without others hampering you, you have the potential to develop into an amazing individual . Historically, whether it be race, sexuality, gender or disease, stigma has resulted in discrimination, which causes more deaths than diseases such as HIV. Films such as these need to be seen if this message is to be understood and acted upon.
If children such as those at Baan Gerda can live with a large, striped predator on their backs so can we.