- The Washington Times - Friday, May 4, 2007

MADRAS, India — Impoverished and mostly illiterate slum dwellers in this southern Indian city have become role models in the battle against HIV-related discrimination by taking in some of India’s tragic AIDS orphans.

Inspired by the story of Soorya Gajendran — a slum dweller who defied her impoverished circumstances and social ostracization to give a home to an HIV-positive orphan girl in 2004 — eight more slum families are fostering children who were orphaned by AIDS and are HIV-positive.

Like Mrs. Gajendran, all have formed strong bonds with the children and want to adopt them legally. But that has not been permitted because of their financial circumstances.

Mrs. Gajendran is preparing to go to court to seek adoption rights to the girl, named Shubha. She says it will be impossible for her to part with the girl when her role as foster mother comes to an end.

“She is my daughter. I love her as much as I love my two sons. I cannot imagine Shubha being separated from us,” Mrs. Gajendran said with tears in her eyes.

“Some of my relatives and friends even shunned my family for taking an HIV-positive baby to my home. Despite the odds, I clung onto her tightly. It will be an injustice if she is taken away from me one day.”

According to a World Bank report, the number of Indian children orphaned by AIDS is nearing 2 million and — like Africa during the last decade — India is expected to become the scene of a major AIDS orphan crisis.

Yet relief agencies warn that the AIDS orphans are being ignored and increasingly left to fend for themselves — regardless of whether they personally carry the virus or not.

In such an atmosphere, activists argue that strict rules on adoption should be relaxed so that Shubha and other AIDS orphans can find new homes with slum dwellers such as Mrs. Gajendran.

“With her revolutionary contribution, Soorya has ushered in a new wave of compassionate carers for AIDS orphans,” said Andal Damodaran, a leading adoption specialist in Madras, also called Chennai.

“We are confident that her first big and bold step in eradicating AIDS-related stigma and discrimination in society will be appreciated by the court and the verdict will come in favor of this great woman.” When Mrs. Gajendran first offered to foster Shubha, she faced skepticism, even from the AIDS orphanage that was trying to find homes for its charges.

Mrs. Gajendran recounted being asked by a counselor: “Do you know that this baby is HIV-positive? Will you be able to keep her in your family? Are you sure you will not turn up at our [AIDS ] orphanage tomorrow to say that you cannot keep the child with you?” Mrs. Gajendran responded by embracing the sickly 1-year-old, who had sores all over her body. She kissed her forehead and said, “She is my daughter. Should you ask such rude questions to a mother about her daughter?” Mrs. Gajendran’s husband, the sole family breadwinner, works as a day laborer. The couple live hand-to-mouth with their two sons in a decrepit 8-by-9-foot room.

As news of Shubha’s new family spread, the case was celebrated by AIDS activists in Madras as a landmark achievement in the long battle against stigma and discrimination faced by HIV victims in Indian society.

A Tamil women’s magazine picked Mrs. Gajendran as their “Icon of the Year” in 2004, but her actions remained unnoticed at the national level until a national women’s foundation honored her with a Woman of Substance Award last year.

Specialists in handling HIV-positive orphans say it is crucial for such children to receive a mother’s touch and the intimacies of family to grow physically and mentally.

“At our orphanage, there is no dearth of food, clothing and medicine. Also, we have a good number of carers for the children. But an orphan badly needs someone in the role of a mother, taking that very special role in the child’s daily life,” said Pinagapani Manorama, chief of the Madras medical organization that runs the orphanage where Shubha had been living.

“When [HIV-positive children] feel sick and weak for days or weeks, they want to stick to their mother’s arms where they feel safe. In fact, because of their ill health, these children need mothers more than other children.” The founder of the Tamil Nadu region’s largest orphanage, Udavum Karangal, said that by taking Shubha into her home, Mrs. Gajendran had taught illiterate slum dwellers a lesson to which the upper classes remain impervious.

“Thousands want to sponsor AIDS orphans by sending money to orphanages,” said Vidyaakar, who like many in southern India uses only one name.

“But those rich and literate people never have the gumption to take an HIV-positive orphan into their home. Rarely do any of them dare to adopt even an HIV-negative orphan if they were born to an AIDS-affected family.”

Mrs. Gajendran’s neighbors believe Shubha will ultimately remain with her new family, whatever happens in the courts.

“Shubha came to her as a very sick baby and we all thought she would not live much longer,” said Sathya, an elderly neighbor. “But Soorya’s way of taking care of Shubha even moved God, and He has finally rewarded Soorya by taking away all diseases from Shubha’s body.”

She was referring to recent tests that found that Shubha appeared to be no longer carrying HIV — as happens to about 40 percent of children who are born HIV positive.

“When Soorya has gotten such a reward from God, no power on Earth can take Shubha away from her now.”

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