In Their Voices: Children Living with HIV in Jamaica Speak

Danielle Toppin

Recognizing the unique circumstances of children whose lives have been directly impacted by HIV, a number of worthwhile initiatives have been launched in Jamaica to address the issue.

In the discussions around advocacy for those living with, or affected by HIV, children are often differently treated than are adults, with their age and dependence being two key factors that shape their experiences of living with the infection. In recognition of the unique circumstances of children whose lives have been directly impacted by HIV, a number of worthwhile initiatives have been launched in Jamaica, with the central focus being to provide young people with a platform on which they can air these unique experiences.

In Jamaica, as of January 2007, 5,125 children under the age of 15 were estimated to have been orphaned by AIDS. In 2006, 73 children aged zero to nine years old were diagnosed with HIV.

In the Rapid Assessment of the Situation of Orphans and Other Children living in Households Affected by HIV/AIDS in Jamaica (2002), the unique circumstances of this group of children was outlined. Issues such as access to poverty, effective public health care, stigmatization, insufficient psycho-social support and inadequate network systems all come together to negatively impact the lives of children affected by HIV. Negative cultural attitudes towards the illness negatively impact the level of support – both emotional and financial – that many children receive from their families and immediate support groups following the death of their parents or caregivers. This is further complicated in smaller communities, thereby increasing the stigmatization that is endured during an already troublesome period of their lives.

In recognition of these dynamics, there have been ongoing efforts to centralize the experiences of these children. In 2006, twenty-five young persons that are either infected with, or affected by HIV came together, with the guidance of Panos Caribbean to produce a series of public service announcements entitled "Our Own Voices: Youth Fighting HIV." Providing the young participants with basic journalistic training, as well as training on basic sexual and reproductive health issues and child rights, the program has not only sought to create an avenue for this group to cope with the realities of their lives by giving voice to their concerns, but also to use their experiences as vehicles for change.

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In the last week, another powerful initiative has been launched by affected and infected youths, Panos and a local media house, the Gleaner Company. In an initiative entitled "Special Delivery," children living with, and/or affected by HIV will deliver a number of letters to influential persons in the society, advocating positive change on issues that they have identified as being key to their lives. What is of special significance is that the issues that are addressed are those that the children and adolescents themselves have identified, based on the belief that they themselves are most intimately aware of their needs and concerns. In this manner, there are two key outcomes: one, the development of a people-centered approach which can better inform policy and, two, a shift in the lives of the children themselves, whereby, through advocacy they are better able to play active roles in their own lives.

The letters, which are published in the Jamaica Gleaner, have thus far addressed issues such as the need for parenting seminars and the inclusion of parenting components to HIV projects, which would better enable their parents and caregivers to cope not only with their own status, but with the impact on their children.

The two mentioned initiatives illustrate not only the powerful potential of the media for affecting change, but also the importance of privileging the experiences of affected groups, in this case children infected with, and affected by HIV. In so doing, we are able to affect change on two key levels: individual empowerment and social consciousness.

By highlighting the stories of children, as told by children themselves, the "Special Delivery" initiative clearly takes a step towards challenging cultural attitudes towards HIV and those infected with it.

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