Seeing 7-year-old Xiao Lin (pseudonym) joke and play with her grandparents, it is hard to imagine the hardship she has already faced in her short life.
But when the little girl, who is living with HIV, meets strangers, her innocent eyes turn sad.
Xiao Lin, an ethnic Tibetan living in the Aba Tibetan-Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in Southwest China's Sichuan Province, lost her HIV-positive mother when she was two years old. Her father abandoned the family soon after Xiao was diagnosed with the virus.
Xiao Lin is just one of China's many unlucky children who have contracted HIV and lost their parents due to illnesses made worse by the virus. According to official data, China had about 654,000 HIV-positive citizens as of September 2016 and 201,000 people are known to have died due to the disease in China since records began.
Moreover, a 2011 report on child welfare pointed out that as of 2010, about 500,000 to 800,000 children have been directly affected by HIV, among whom around 270,000 children had lost their parents because of the virus.
Discrimination against HIV-positive people in education and employment has long been a significant problem in China. Experts have called for the country to ensure these children have access to the welfare and education programs that other orphans enjoy.
However, insiders noted that there is still a long way to go as the public still lacks knowledge about HIV transmission and many local governments are unaware of the importance of education on this issue.
Pretending to go to school
When asked if she wants to go to school, to play and study with other children, Xiao Lin's bright eyes darkened. She shook her head and then sank into a long silence.
When Xiao Lin was 5, she had a chance to go to school, however, her grandfather did not let her go out of fear that she would pass the virus to other students accidently while playing with them.
Although she said she did not want to go to school, her grandfather said that she did not really mean that as “she has always carried around her little schoolbag and pretended to go to school.”
It is very difficult to help HIV-positive people in Tibetan areas due to a lack of support from local governments and Tibetan Buddhist monks. Moreover, funding is also a problem, Dawa Sherab, a volunteer from Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in western Sichuan, told the Global Times.
“Discrimination against children with HIV is very serious in some provinces. Most of them are forced to leave school while some lucky ones have the chance to study in special schools. It is like a label that is put on their body for life, constantly telling them that they are different in a bad way,” Wu Jiang, director of the project department of the AIDS Prevention Education Project for Chinese Youth, an NGO established in 2006 which has supported over 25,000 households affected by HIV.
Wu said that this discrimination has even extended to their volunteers, with some people speculating that they have gotten involved with the project because they themselves have contracted HIV.
Wu explained that this discrimination was mainly due to people's lack of knowledge about how the virus is transmitted. “A survey of Chinese journalists once showed that less than 30 percent of respondents could answer all the questions correctly. Because of this ignorance, some parents push schools to kick out the students with HIV to protect their children,” said Wu.
In a recent case that shocked the nation, a HIV-positive 8-year-old named Kunkun allegedly faced expulsion from Shufangya village, Sichuan. More than 200 villagers, including the boy's grandfather, voted to expel him to “protect villagers' health.”
Since 2014, Xiao Lin has received a government subsidy of 6,000 yuan (9) per year. Now, her grandfather's biggest wish is that she could have another chance to go to school.
“Although the government has established many policies to maintain basic living, medical care and education standard for these orphans, it is hard for them to enjoy this welfare as they are dispersed around the country. They should be included into the local social welfare systems that other orphans enjoy,” Shao Yiming, a national political advisor, told news site yicai.com.
However, Wu admitted that this will be very difficult to realize, at least in a short time, as “some welfare centers and education departments still regard AIDS as something that is far away from them and education on AIDS is not important.”
As many welfare centers, kindergartens and schools are unwilling to accept HIV-positive children, and few local governments have established special adoption centers and schools for them, most of the aid they receive comes from NGOs, said Shao.
“There is still a long way to go. We hope that education on AIDS will not turn out to be just a short campaign, but will be really useful,” said Wu.
Students from Nanyang City No.16 Elementary School including five orphans whose parents' deaths were caused by AIDS sign their names on a red ribbon placed on the school yard.