In Baan Gerda, a community for HIV infected or affected youngsters in Northern Thailand, a group of young people are finding themselves at the forefront of the battle to educate Thai youth about HIV.
Working at grass roots level, members of Baan Gerda are touring the country to screen a documentary by Mike Thomas to promote awareness of the infection and to provide insight into how it can affect individual lives.
Living with the Tiger documents the young people’s personal battles and the success of their opera production, which made significant inroads into lessening stigma within the nearby communities. In December 2011, a screening was held at the Enigma Theatre in Bangkok to coincide with World AIDS Day. Children from Baan Gerda also performed a dance routine.
In light of comments made in December 2011 by Paul De Lay, deputy executive director of UNAIDS, it seems that the need to re-ignite HIV awareness campaigns could not be more urgent. De Lay estimated that an increase in global apathy combined with the ongoing financial crisis could result in a fifty year waiting period before the goal of zero new transmissions is achieved.
Despite its status as a model country due to its past success in dealing with the HIV virus, Thailand is certainly not excluded from De Lay’s concerns. In 2010, factors such as an increase in risky sexual behaviour amongst young people and a rise in the number of recorded STI infections led charities such as AVERT to comment that there are fears that HIV and AIDS could soon resurface.
Young people are currently one of the main at risk groups in Thailand. Although 70% of all recorded sexually transmitted infections occur in youths, it is thought that around 80% do not see HIV as their problem. As early as 2006, Patrick Brenny from UNAIDS was bringing attention to the issue; “Thailand must revive its flagging HIV/AIDS awareness programmes to reach out to a new generation of young people, who currently see the virus as a problem largely affecting their elders.”
As a community, Baan Gerda is very much aware of the part it must play in dealing with the crisis. Karl Morsbach, the German founder, ensures the young people are educated about their responsibility as HIV infected individuals.
“Now that many children go through puberty we have experienced psychologists come from outside and help our carers and staff members to educate about sex.”
Karl hopes that many of the youngsters will be able to reintegrate back into mainstream society. “The kids of Baan Gerda hardly differ from other kids. Some are ambitious and take advantage of what we offer.”
Karl is also aware that reintegration will not be possible for all.
“Some children simply refuse to learn at school. We figure that 20 to 30 children will not make smooth transition into independence later… for those kids who do not manage to find their place we need to provide a basis for a home and living.”
One of the schemes that Karl has initiated is the development of a biological farm, which will allow the community to continue on its path towards self-sufficiency. Teenagers are sent on courses that equip them with the knowledge necessary to become farmers. The potential longevity of this scheme is apparent as Karl further comments “later we will build houses for the kids and their future families.”
Planning for the future hasn‘t always been as high on the priority list. Originally opened to provide a place in which infected children could die with as much dignity as possible, Baan Gerda experienced fourteen deaths during the early years. This was due to the unavailability of medicine and inexperience in caring for infected children.
With the increase in availability of antiretroviral medicines, the mandate of Baan Gerda changed. Instead of only providing comfort for dying children, Baan Gerda transformed into a place in which children came to live. Karl shares “believe me it was a rewarding experience to look at a new coming sick child and to assume that this child most probably will be with you for a long time.”
As the youth of Baan Gerda continue to prepare for their futures, they do it in the knowledge that their experience and education positions them perfectly to become ambassadors for HIV awareness in a country which is still very much at risk.
By Eleanor Herzog