BANGKOK—More than a dozen children living with HIV in Ho Chi Minh City have been sent home on their first day of elementary school after other children's parents staged an angry protest at the gates.
The children, who live at the charity-run Mai Hoa Center in the northern industrial suburb of Cu Chi, were forced to return home from the An Nhon Dong Elementary School.
"It’s better to stop our children’s schooling than to let them sit next to AIDS-infected children," one parent at the scene of the protests said.
Officials told local media the government had a policy of nondiscrimination against HIV-infected children in schools. They added they had to make several requests for the Mai Hoa Center children's documentation to be processed before they were finally admitted.
But on their first day, they were sent home again.
"When our children came home from school, they were so upset," said Sister Diem at the Mai Hoa Center, which is run by the Vietnamese Catholic Church. "They wept bitterly. Several of them stopped eating their meals."
She said the nuns had decided for the time being to continue the children's education at the center, though the children themselves want to go to a public school like their peers.
‘Scared’ by protest
Another Mai Hoa nun, Sister Bao, said the children asked her: "Why are our classmates’ parents angry with us? Why don’t they let us go to school? What’s wrong with us?”
"We are quite healthy, neat, and clean. We have been taught very well how not to infect our school mates, but their parents scared us this morning," she said.
The news that the Mai Hoa children were to attend An Nhon prompted the withdrawal of 85 percent of applications for the new academic year, school officials said.
The angry scenes in Cu Chi highlight a widespread problem within Vietnam facing people who live with HIV.
Elsewhere in Ho Chi Minh City, Nguyen Thi Nguyet, leader of Thu Duc District's Morning Sun Team HIV/AIDS community education group said that it is common for HIV-infected children to submit school registration applications several times before being admitted.
"Several schools admitted them. However, when they found out that the children’s parents had died of AIDS, they immediately returned them [home]," Nguyet said.
She said some parents had lied about their child's health status to get them into school.
And in Tam Binh district, Tran Thi Thu Tram said that 22 HIV-infected children at a home under her care currently attendelementary school.
‘I won’t live long’
"Almost all these children have good academic records and good conduct. However, the parents of other children still have a very discriminatory attitude to them," she said.
One seven-year-old HIV-infected child from Dong Nai, known as Little Vinh, said:
"I know that I won’t live long. Please let me go to school normally like other children of my age. I promise I’ll not let my infection spread to anybody."
Municipal AIDS prevention official Le Truong Giang said HIV-infected children have the right to attend public schools.
"Regrettably, a number of parents don’t agree that their children should attend school alongside children with HIV."
He called for an end to community discrimination.
Hard to spread HIV
"Only the mutual and common accord of the people in the community will prevent these sick children from dying from discrimination before they even feel the pain of this disease," Giang added.
He reminded parents that HIV could not be spread between schoolchildren.
Tam Binh Orphanage director Nguyen Van Trung agreed.
"It is a great pity that several children are of school age. They should have had the chance to go to school," he said.
"They must be amazed by the sad fact that schools have refused to admit them. Adults usually dare not tell the exact reason why they are discriminated against," Trung said.
Around 60,000 children are believed to be living with HIV in Ho Chi Minh City alone, according to statistics from the municipal Committee for the Prevention and Treatment of AIDS.
Only seven percent of these children are cared for by specialist centers such as Mai Hoa, which was set up to care for the growing number of people dying of AIDS on city streets.
Original reporting in Vietnamese by Quynh Nhu. Vietnamese service director: Diem Nguyen. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.