Zhang Moumou is twelve years old. He kneels down before his parents' gravestones. As he sees their pictures before him, he cannot help but cry. Zhang Moumou's parents died of AIDS, leaving him and his two sisters behind. His younger sister is HIV positive. His elder sister has been kicked out of school. Zhang Moumou also had to leave school in order to earn some money for the family. He works in a brick factory and earns a bit more than a dollar a day. Even though he is still young, he is disappointed in life. He has carved the characters for "hatred" in his arm
Children Affected by AIDS
China is facing a major challenge now that AIDS is spreading rapidly. Up to one million Chinese people are HIV positive. That number could easily grow to ten million by 2010 according to the United Nations. If current trends continue, China could overtake Africa, where 29 million people have been infected with the virus. Though many HIV infected people are adults, many children are affected in some way or another. They are affected because they belong to a family that is marked by HIV/AIDS. They are affected if their parents have died of AIDS and they have become orphans. Among these children are the ones that have contracted the virus themselves. They are fighting their own fight and are having very specific problems.
Chinese people who are HIV positive face much discrimination and stigma as many Chinese people have no idea how the HIV virus is transmitted and are afraid of people who have HIV/AIDS. Many children are discriminated against, and stigmatized as well, if their parents are HIV positive. Parents of other children do not allow their children to play with children from AIDS families. Children are not allowed to come to school anymore because staff is afraid that the virus will be transmitted to other children. Once they are excluded from the community, children start suffering and problems get worse.
Dropping Out of School
Children drop out of school because of discrimination but also because of factors like increasing poverty in the family. Parents have to pay medical expenses and therefore cannot pay the school fees for their children any longer as is the case with Limou. "I am 15 and want to go to school, but we don't have money. I cried several times, but I'm afraid to cry in front of my parents." Some children need to start working because the parents have fallen ill and cannot continue working. When parents become ill with AIDS, children often start caring for them. As they are not used to this type of work, they face pressures and responsibilities that are beyond their abilities.
Bereavement and Grief
Some children are afraid that they have caused their parents illness or death. Though children realize something is wrong when their parents fall ill, they often do not know that the parent will actually die. Talking about death is still very much taboo in China. Once their parents die, the children face new problems. They need to process the loss of their parents, but in most cases there is no one around to help them with that. Many AIDS orphans have already been excluded from the community before their parents die, and that leaves them without anyone caring for them. In some way or another they have to survive, and that, of course, is a major challenge in itself.
AIDS orphans have no legal rights which makes them very vulnerable. Some children have grandparents who start caring for them. Others, however, like fourteen year old Gaoli, are treated terribly by their relatives. Both her parents died of AIDS. After their deaths, her uncle took all the family property. For Goali and her younger sibling, there is nothing left. They cannot even pay their school fees.
Dongdong's parents sold their blood in order to earn some money for their children's education. Through blood selling they were infected with HIV and later died of AIDS. Dongdong writes: "Right now, our home has changed from a place with happy voices and laughter into a cold and quiet place. Whenever I enter the yard of another family, I want to cry out, 'Daddy, Mommy!' But during the daytime I'm afraid others will laugh at me, so only at night I quietly cry/call, 'Daddy, Mommy, I miss you; I want to be with you so much, to see your faces. I really, really want to hear your voices; I want you to care for me and give me some love, even if it's only for one second, even if it's only for one second! Mommy, do you hear the voice of my heart?'"
Responses to the AIDS Problem
The extent of the problem. In 2001, China already had 76,000 children (aged 0-14) who had been orphaned by AIDS. The China Centre for Disease Control predicts that by the end of 2010, China will have 138,000 AIDS orphans in the best case scenario and 250,000 in the worst. The problems of these children are enormous, and there is hardly any help available. Though there are still many problems and challenges, there are also some positive developments.
Responses started. The national government has launched several programs to fight the spread of AIDS. In 2005, President Hu Jintao shook hands with an AIDS patient. The first AIDS orphanage has been built. Some Chinese and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have started AIDS projects. Most of them focus on awareness and prevention. Though there is a great need for training in that area, there are hardly any projects focusing on children affected by AIDS. This is of major concern for several reasons. First of all, the number of children that are affected by AIDS will grow rapidly. We need to prepare ourselves for this future problem. Secondly, if these children do not receive acceptance and help while they are young, they will develop major emotional and social problems. As we are looking at a bigger group of children affected by AIDS, this could cause social instability in the future.
Thirdly, if children do not receive help soon, emotional problems will take root in their lives and will be much harder to deal with later on.
Outreach to Children Affected by AIDS
Importance of focusing on children. Most Chinese people will agree that children are the future, and that we need to care for them. We want to see happy and thriving children instead of children marked by despair. By focusing on children, we also work on an integrated program of outreach to people with HIV/AIDS. In order to reach children early on, we need to have contact with their families. If we get to know their parents and understand their family background, we will better understand their needs and will be better able to make preparations for later on. If children are sick with AIDS, there will be a need for good medical care. That leads to a focus on the medical aspects. If the children are not allowed into schools because of discrimination, we need to make sure that people understand what HIV/AIDS is and how it spreads. This will result in awareness and prevention work. A focus on the child will identify gaps in care and support that will also affect adults and others in the community.
Outreach by communities. The number of children affected by AIDS will increase in the coming years. As a result more people are needed to reach out to them. If each community would start taking responsibility for the smaller number of children in their own community, there will be hope. Communities need to understand the needs of the children affected by AIDS among them. They also need to learn that they have all that is required to help their own children.
Simple ways of outreach. There are many simple ways in which children can be helped. For instance, if community volunteers would start visiting families with AIDS patients, they could help a child take better care of his or her parents. If a number of volunteers would start caring for sick parents, children would have opportunities to attend school again. If families would be visited regularly, volunteers would get to know them, including the children. After the parents' deaths, they would already have a relationship with the children and could give emotional and other kinds of support. They could help the children grieve over their loss simply by spending time with them and allowing the children to talk about their parents and cry. Collecting some things from the parent in a treasure box would make a valuable memory for the child and help him or her to process the loss of the parent. Teaching a child how to make some simple meals could be crucial in keeping a child healthy. For simple ways of outreach like these, the community has all the resources needed available.
Opportunities for the Church
Called to share God's love. In the Scriptures, we read about the responsibility of the body of Christ to reach out to people in need. The Lord Jesus touched the lives of people who were sick, blind or paralyzed. He brought healing and hope. We know how the Lord Jesus called children to him and blessed them. Scripture says that the care of orphans is at the core of pure religion. The church has a responsibility. It also is a great community that should reach out to children affected by AIDS. Besides bringing hope to them for this life, believers can bring eternal hope to these children! Moreover, the outreach can be as simple as that mentioned above.
Current outreach by believers. Several Chinese believers have already started to reach out to people living with AIDS. For example, one church did awareness and prevention training for the believers in their church. As a result, the believers were no longer afraid of contact with AIDS patients. They were willing to meet with them and support them. They have discovered how the Lord has used the love they have shown to AIDS patients for the furtherance of His Kingdom. It is a great witness if believers accept and welcome people with AIDS in a society where these people are rejected and stigmatized. One man who had lost his wife and daughter because of AIDS, and who was HIV positive himself, was touched by the love of the believers in his area. After some time, he became a believer and has now become one of the trainers of the AIDS awareness and prevention training.
The Lord has called more Chinese brothers and sisters to reach out to people with AIDS. Recently the pastor of a house church in central China had a dream of an AIDS patient calling out to him and asking him for help. He sensed that the Lord was calling him and his church to start an outreach to people with HIV/ AIDS. He is looking for training and exploring the different types of outreach they could begin while the church has started praying specifically for this new ministry. These are hopeful signs that the church is standing up and responding to the AIDS challenge in China. However, it seems that the need for outreach to children affected by HIV/AIDS still remains to be discovered.
Hope for Zhang Moumou
Zhang Moumou—twelve years old with the character for "hatred" carved in his arm
When hearing stories like his, one wonders whether there is hope for children in deep despair. We know where hope can be found and so do our Chinese brothers and sisters. The Father of the fatherless is still standing with open arms and has told his children to seek what is lost! Let us pray that our Chinese brothers and sisters will take on this challenge, and let us pray for them as they begin to step out in faith.