Bhagyashri Kulkarni had no clue why her mother was packing their bags to go to Ahmednagar. The eight-year-old, who had grown up in Nagpur, had just lost her father to AIDS. That had been unsettling enough. And now, this.
It took her only a few days to realise that she would be staying at the Ahmednagar orphanage for some time. Soon after they arrived, her mother died, leaving the officials there scampering for her legal guardian. Not to take her back, but to grant the orphanage official custody of Bhagyashri. Her maternal uncle from Nagpur was only too happy to oblige.
Today, Bhagyashri, 15, considers herself lucky. As we walk past the small cabin where Rajkumar, 8, is fighting a losing battle with life, she tells me she is better off and happier here. “My treatment was started at the right time, these people take good care of me and I can concentrate on my studies here. Had I stayed with my uncle, I might not have lived this long,” she says matter-of-factly. And smiles as she adds, “Besides, I have a new mother, someone who cares for me as much as Aai (her birth mother) did.”
Her foster mother is Yogita Joshi, 24, whose husband drove her out when she was seven months pregnant because she was HIV-positive (her husband refused to test himself though Yogita believes she got the virus from him.) The despondent 20-year-old found her way to Snehalaya, where her son was born. Since he tested negative, she put him up for adoption to give him a better life. She has now adopted seven more children, including a two-month-old. “We have as much fun as as other kids,” Bhagyashri says.
“Both mothers and children need each other after being dumped by their families or losing them — the child gets unconditional love and the women develop an emotional bond with their adopted children,” says Girish Kulkarni, a volunteer with Snehalaya.
Foster mothers like Yogita have provided an innovative answer to the question that haunts hundreds of families and orphanages across the state: who will look after children orphaned by AIDS?
Many such orphans are literally dumped at hospitals, NGOs and orphanages and the numbers are increasing, especially in Pune. The problem is compounded when the child is HIV-positive as well, with poor families reluctant to take on the twin burden of the social stigma and medical costs attached to these orphans.
In Pune, other NGOs have also adopted this novel method of intervention. “We insist that the child should stay in a family. In many cases, we sponsor the children. But even that fails quite often and we are left with no choice but to move them to an orphanage,” says Father Mathew, who runs Sarva Seva Sangh, an NGO in Wadgaon Sheri, about 15 kilometers from Pune.
“When the child is in the care of the extended family, we make home visits, counsel them and try to change their mindsets,” says Father Richard. The Sangh has around 750 such children and about 500 under its care. Nevertheless, there are administrative problems. Pune district has only one anti-retroviral therapy (ART) distribution centre (at Sassoon Hospital), while districts like Ahmednagar still do not have one. “People from even far-flung districts and villages have to come here to get their doses. We neither have a policy for orphans nor do I see one in the near future. Thankfully some of the NGOs are doing their bit,” concedes Rajeev Bamble, director, Pune City AIDS Control Society.
Add to this the pressure of increasing numbers. There are currently over 3,000 children across half-a-dozen orphanages; the number was only about 750 about two years ago. “We are full, we cannot accept any more children. We don’t have the capacity and the government doesn’t help,” says Ujjwala Lavate of Manave, a Pune orphanage that currently houses about 80 children.
RR Gangakhedkar, deputy director (clinical research), National AIDS Research Institute in Pune, sounds a note of caution as he acknowledges the success of the experiment: “The children are getting a life of dignity and security. But we have to guard against misuse of the system. In this case, many families might want to just dump their children. This is a serious issue and we are yet to find an answer to it.”