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India's AIDS Children Shunned

Sitting cross-legged on the cement floor of a home for abandoned children, 7-year-old Rupa — one of at least 60,000 Indian children infected with the AIDS virus — laughed excitedly, clicking the beads on an abacus.

"I've done it. I've won," she shouted, finishing her simple math problem ahead of a dozen other children crowding the sparsely furnished room.

Rupa's bright eyes and high-spirited nature do not reflect her harrowing tale — of being shunned by neighbors and turned away from the homes of relatives when they learned she had tested positive for HIV, contracted at birth from her mother.

India and the United Nations have said 5.1 million adults are infected with the HIV virus here, the second-highest number in the world after South Africa.

Child sufferers are not included in that figure, but the government's AIDS control agency said 60,000 Indian children have the virus, while independent organizations have said the number may be closer to 100,000.

It was unclear how those numbers rank in comparison to other countries, but a report released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch said the Indian government is putting millions at risk by ignoring such children.

"Children affected by HIV/AIDS are being discriminated against in education and health services, denied care by orphanages, and pushed onto the streets and into the worst forms of child labor," Zama Coursen-Neff, the author of the report, told The Associated Press in an interview.

When a parent is infected, children drop out of school to care for them, or go to work to replace the lost income, until they become orphans, she said.

"Many doctors refuse to treat or even touch HIV-positive children," Human Rights Watch said. "Some schools expel or segregate children because they or their parents are HIV-positive."

The report urged the Indian government to adopt laws banning discrimination, specifically ensuring that no child is kept out of school. It also called on the state to care for all children whose parents are unable to provide for them because of the disease, and suggested an extensive public information campaign.

In India, the virus initially infected prostitutes, their clients, drug addicts, and both homosexual and bisexual men. But it has spread to housewives, some of whom were infected by husbands who may have visited a prostitute or may be bisexual.

In a society where females are already undervalued — receiving less food, education and medical care — contracting the HIV virus is an additional burden because of the scarce resources available to them.

This was evident in Rupa's case. Rupa's mother died of AIDS 10 years after she contracted the disease from her husband, who was a truck driver. Her two children were also infected.

"Rupa's younger brother, who has also tested positive, was taken back to the village by the children's father. But he left Rupa at our doorstep, saying the villagers would not welcome a girl child," said Doe Nair, head of the women's group that runs the children's home.

Almost all the girls at the government-funded home have been abandoned by their families after testing positive for HIV, Nair said.

"The premium for a male child is so high in Indian society that families are ready to spend on his medical treatment and care," Nair said.

AIDS activists say young girls, orphaned after the death of their parents, are often thrown out of their homes and eventually pushed into prostitution.

At the mercy of pimps and brothel owners, they cannot insist that clients use a condom, said Anjali Gopalan, executive director of the Naz Foundation, a health agency that runs one of the few private clinics for AIDS patients in New Delhi.

"The discrimination that girls with HIV/AIDS face in the home, community and at the work place has remained largely invisible to government policy makers. There are no programs that focus on their problems," said Kousalya Perisamy of the Positive Women Network, an activist group working in southern Tamil Nadu state.

Meenakshi Dutta-Ghosh, who heads the Indian government's National AIDS Control Organization, said the government may have ignored children with HIV in the past, but she argued that health authorities have refocused their prevention and care programs in the last two years.

"Earlier, for whatever reason, children were not a priority. This has changed. We are looking at children and young people as a category of focused attention," Dutta-Ghosh said.

The government had not given a figure for the number of child victims before, but Dutta-Ghosh offered the 60,000 estimate in an interview this week.

She said the government was working with independent groups and state welfare programs to reach children outside the regular school network, including street children, dropouts and child prostitutes.

But Gopalan called for laws to require protection of children with the disease. "There has to be a sustained effort at sensitizing officials, doctors, teachers, people at all levels," she said. "There's a long battle ahead."