According to Dr. Louie Ocampo, UNAIDS Philippines country director, Philippines has been ranked with the fastest-growing (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) HIV epidemic not only in Asia and the Pacific but in the world based on the UNAIDS 2018 report where it recorded about 13,384 new HIV infections, or a staggering 203% higher than the 4,419 infections recorded in 2010.
In the Philippines, being a predominantly catholic and religious country, sex is still considered taboo whether among households, schools and other institutions. Such culture, including the lack of sex education and awareness, has hampered the efforts to mitigate sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), HIV/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) and teenage pregnancies in the country despite the passage of landmark bills like the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012 and the newly amended Philippine HIV and AIDS Policy Act. Progressive bills and massive campaigns on sex and reproductive health rights and awareness were met with strong opposition among conservative and religious groups including their allies installed into the pedestals of both the upper and lower chambers of the congress.
A Cradle of Hope
Three months in the making but their stories must be told.
The idea dawned on me half a year ago, but the actual plan execution barely started last October 2019. However, due to foreseen challenges that could hinder its implementation, I decided to move to a more feasible date and came to fruition last January 19, 2020.
I first met Ms. Pamela Magdaluyo, the program coordinator of Duyan last October 2019. She started her advocacy after knowing that her son, whom he adopted when the kid’s biological parents died, was also infected with HIV. Her personal experience fuelled her to extend help to the People living with HIV (PLHIV) community.
As the incidence of the young population infected with HIV continues to rise drastically over the past years in the Philippines, children born with HIV also continue to rise. Duyan, which means “cradle” is a program of the Project Red Ribbon Care Management Foundation, Inc. to provide care and support to children living with HIV.
Due to a compromised immune system, children living with HIV experience difficulties to cope up with sickness and manage their health. Aside from inadequate pediatric HIV care among treatment hubs, economically challenged parents face financial constraints to pay for laboratory fees, vaccines, and medicines to treat related HIV infections and complications. Moreover, daily health supplements and vitamins, as well as sending their children for regular check-ups would be financial distress among parents and their guardians to work in order to meet both ends. However, more than financial needs, kids and their respective families must have to endure each day the brunt of stigma and discrimination brought about by their medical condition coupled with misinformation arising from social prejudice. Hence, some of the kids were either evicted from their homes or abandoned after their parents died due to AIDS complications. Duyan program became their beacon and cradle of hope.
HAPI meets Duyan Kids
Humanist Alliance of the Philippines, International (HAPI) remains true and dedicated to its commitment to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity. HAPI also acknowledges that joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives and encourages us to enrich the lives of others.
Prior to the program, Ms. Pam conducted a short briefing on us volunteers as regards with do’s and don’ts to protect the identity of the kids and their parents. She also narrated a preview of how she started with her advocacy.
To set everyone’s mood for the activity and to remove any inhibitions in socializing with one another, laughter yoga was conducted at the onset of the program. Kates Ante, a certified laughter yoga teacher and currently the projects and logistics officer of HAPI, facilitated the said activity. Laughter yoga consists of different laughter exercises by imitating different forms of laughter. Aside from lowering the participant’s level of anxiety and stress, these laughter exercises became a medium for both participants from Duyan and volunteer from HAPI to connect and engage with one another. For people with a compromised immune system, laughter helps a lot.
The second part of the event was divided into two break-away sessions, one for the kids and another for the parents and guardians, which was held simultaneously. In order to solicit attention from kids, toys were given to them at the start in order for them to enjoy and actively participate. Art session was given to kids as a medium to freely express themselves and to go beyond their comfort zones.
As Sydney Gurewitz Clemens has said, “Art has the role in education of helping children become like themselves instead of more like everyone else”. Each kid was given a brush and watercolor palette to paint anything they want or anything that is on their mind. Kids were guided by their “kuya” and “ate” volunteers from HAPI throughout the activity. Their artworks were collated and converted into wall decorations. Aside from the art session, HAPI volunteers played with the kids. One could see the beaming smile on their innocent faces. They are so carefree and their smiles were contagious that made us not forget that even us adults can have child-like hearts.
Yes, they are kids. They play and live like any other kids totally unaware of their status. They only know is that they have to take their medicines diligently since their fragile health at a young age, could easily be compromised. They don’t know what the future holds for them amidst the stigma and discrimination attached to their medical condition. But we can give them a safe space and a brighter future if we only start treating HIV/AIDS as a medical condition rather than a reflection of one’s morality. They may lose their immunity, but not their humanity. Let us not take that away from them.
A Parent’s Tale
To support the welfare of their children holistically, they too should be empowered. A parallel session with the parents and guardian of Duyan kids was conducted through peer support and counseling session. They shared their personal stories struggles that were kept untold for years from the public due to irreversible and damaging effects of stigma and discrimination on their own lives and their families.
Some of them bravely accepted the responsibility of being a second parent to these kids, and some of them selflessly endure to carry the weights just to meet their family’s needs while assuring the future of their children. One could vividly see through their eyes the pain they have been in to and the silent battles they have to win every time. Through peer support, they were able to learn from each other’s experiences and draws hope and courage from other’s struggles. Support from people who have the same shared experiences will empower them to cope up and deal with their own personal stigma. One can always find comfort and inner peace through acceptance by gearing away from self-denial. To quote what Stewart O’Nan said, “You couldn’t relieve your life, skipping the awful parts, without losing what made it worthwhile. You had to accept it as a whole – like the world, or the person you loved.” Time may be so short for them on that day to socialize and interact with each other, it is an opportunity for HAPI to facilitate more peer support in the future with the Duyan beneficiaries.
The Art of Giving
To conclude the event, we have given the families gift bags. Included therein are Milk Formula which is basically one of their needs, school supplies, and art materials to facilitate their learning and development. In addition, toys and snacks were also given.
As humanists, we don’t just give something for the sake of giving. The best part of the event is empowering each of them with a heartfelt assurance that they too are loved and accepted, and treating them no differently than any one of us and the community. In return, as volunteers, we were able to come up with individual realizations and reflections by learning through other people’s lives and struggles and to collectively pursue different advocacies, by being a voice for the voiceless and be of help to those who dire in need of help.
“People with HIV and AIDS are nothing to be afraid of. They are people just like every single one of us, and each has a story to tell. These people should be helped, embraced, and not dismissed. We need to open our hearts and minds to them, and we just may learn we’re pretty much all the same.” – Lisa Lampanelli