Silent killer cruelly robs a generation of opportunity
The AIDS orphan, as youngsters such as Waqi Wuji are known, is not an isolated phenomenon in her home region. Children whose parents have died of an AIDS-related illness, or have been abandoned by the remaining parent after their spouse has died, make up a large proportion ofthe population.
She is not technically an orphan - she has an 11-year-old sister and a 16-year-old brother aswell as their mother, 45, whose poor health prevents her from supporting her family - but circumstances mean that she has lost her only real chance of formal education and, therefore,a decent standard of living.
Waqi Wuji's educational career ended when she finished her Grade 4 primary schooling,immediately after her father was diagnosed with HIV\\AIDS three years ago. Tears rolled downher cheeks as she talked about missing her education. "I would like to support my family and Iwould like to go back to school," she said.
Her daily jobs include helping her mother and brother work the fields andraise a pig that wasdonated to her family ayear ago. Unlike other Yihouseholds in the county,Waqi Wuji's family can'tafford to raise a cow or anox because they can'tafford to pay the 3,000 to7,000 yuan ($473 to$1,104) required to buylivestock.
"Oxen are important andprecious property in a Yihousehold," said ZikeLame, the head of thecounty authority.
The flat house where WaqiWuji and her family dwell ispractically empty. Thecombined kitchen andliving room contains littlefurniture, but it still qualifies as a typical middle- to lower-class Yi household.
Jida Geguo, Waqi Wuji's mother, barely understands Mandarin and cannot even pronounceher name in the language. Nihao, or "hello", is the only word she can say in Mandarin, so shealways thanks the strangers who visit her home to offer advice and provide help with Kashasha,which means "Thank you" in the Yi language.
Jida Geguo is not alone. Very few of the locals in the region speak Mandarin at home, eventhough school lessons are conducted bilingually and all the signs in the county are written inboth Mandarin and the Yi language.
"This presents children with great hardships when they grow up and try to move outside themountains," said Li Yuan, a program manager for the China Children and Teenagers' Fund,who is in charge of training AIDS orphans in Sichuan province through the Spring Bud Project,which is aimed at helping young women return to school and acquire work skills. "Actually, inthe process of training and helping them, we discovered that they are not accustomed to theoutside world. In addition, they are severely homesick for their own culture," added Li.
"In the end, we find the best chance they have to make a living is to work in Xichang, the capitalof Liangshan prefecture," he said. "If they can be trained to a sufficient standard, they will find alot of good opportunities there."
In total, about 50 charitable organizations help to improve the children's work prospects byoffering education or training facilities in Zhaojue county, Liangshan Yi autonomous prefecture,the biggest Yi group hub, situated in southwest Sichuan on the border with Yunnan province.Nearly all of the prefecture's residents, 97 percent, belong to the Yi ethnic group.
One of the 3 percent of non-Yi is Patrick Tsui, from Taiwan, who is the Zhaojue-based sitemanager of the social responsibility program of Micro-Star International, a US manufacturer ofcomputer components and notebooks. Tsui has worked as deputy director of the Zhaojueyouth center for 12 years, teaching basic and practical skills to help prepare kids for work in thecities. "Pragmatic living skills are what teenagers always need," he said.
Case numbers rise
The journey from Xichang, the capital of Liangshan Yi autonomous prefecture, to Zhaojue,where Waqi Wuji lives takes three bone-shuddering hours over rudimentary mountain roads.As travelers approach the center of the county, the number of signs for HIV/AIDS treatmentclinics multiply.
The prefecture saw its first case of HIV/AIDS in June 1995 when an infected native came backfrom Yunnan province. By the end of 2010, the number of infected adults had reached almost20,000 out of a population of 2.5 million, with 4,500 new cases registered annually, accordingto the prefecture office. However, unofficial estimates say the number could be much higher,possibly as many as 40,000.
The practice of drug users sharing needles was originally the prime method of transmission,but since 2001 sexually transmitted infections have emerged as a major factor.
Along with Butuo county, Zhaojue is the region most hit in terms of transmission rates. Bothcommunities, officially designated as "poverty-stricken", have seen the work force dwindle asresidents moved away to look for work in more developed regions. That huge outflux has madeit harder to prevent and control the AIDS epidemic. "In the beginning, the ethnic people tried tomake a living outside the Liangshan region, but the language barrier and a lack of education isa major obstacle to finding a job," said Yang Bin, the Party chief in Zhaojue. "Dealing drugsseems an easier job to them."
The region has 800,000 primary and middle school students who are exposed to the risk ofdrug use and HIV, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and CulturalOrganization.
Scale of drug use
Hou Yuangao, a professor of sociology at Minzu University of China in Beijing, where themajority of students and graduates come from China's ethnic groups, who established the YiWomen and Children Development Center in Liangshan, was shocked by the scale of drug usewhen he first returned to his hometown in Zhaojue in 2001.
The biggest difficulty Hou faced was that the infected villagers were ignorant of the impact ofthe disease and continued to leave the area to search for work. "It is very hard for us toprevent them from transmitting the disease to other people," said Hou, "The facilities providedby the local government are available, but they just ignore them."
Waqi Zefu, 55, has three granddaughters, the eldest of whom is aged 11. The elderly lady'sson-in-law, Suqi Guha, 26, is among the few staying in the village for long-term treatment forHIV/AIDS. However, at present there's nothing the program can do to ease the financial burdenof her granddaughters, said Waqi Zefu, because it is aimed at girls aged 16 to 21 and hergranddaughters are too young to qualify for help.
If she were to return to school, Waqi Wuji would need to pay tuition fees of 50 to 60 yuan everysemester. As an AIDS orphan, Waqi Wuji receives monthly compensation for her loss, but it'snot enough to allow her and her brother to return to the classroom.
When a teenage Yi girl approached Adam H. Schechter, executive vice-president at Merck andpresident of the company's Global Human Health division, on a visit to Xichang five years ago,her pleas for a chance to continue in school impressed him deeply.
The company became involved in China's first large-scale comprehensive public/privatepartnership, known as the China-MSD HIV/AIDS Partnership. The program provided advice onHIV and AIDS prevention, patient care, treatment and support, as part of its support for"China's Action Plan for Reducing & Preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS 2006-2010", but hasnow ended. However, Merck, in cooperation with the Merck Company Foundation and CCTF,will soon embark on another three-year training program aimed at providing work skills for1,400 young women aged 14 to 21.
"We hope these young people will stay in Liangshan, so that the region can have an intelligentand skillful labor force," said Men Lingling, the human resources manager of Merck in China.
Along with Waqi Wuji, Tumu Erge, another Yi girl is now looking forward to taking part in thetraining program in July. "I believe I will learn skills that will enable me to earn my bread in thefuture and I am thankful for all the efforts people have made."