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Activity Centers Help Uygur Children Face Up to AIDS

Before stepping on to the stage, 10-year-old Amina (not her real name) looks back at her singing teacher. Reassured, the Uygur girl strides toward the center of the stage.

Nervously, the third grader began singing before the audience of 1,000, including her fellow students. It is a traditional Uygur ballad to thank parents, but the girl changes the lyrics, thanking her grandparents.

She was raised at her grandparents' home from the age of nine months. Her father was a drug addict who contracted HIV and her mother divorced him and remarried, leaving the child with her grandparents.

"I'll never forget you, my grandparents," she sings in Uygur, the language of the largest ethnic group in northwest China's underdeveloped Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

The performance of song, dance and drama is put on by children from Yining city's Kardun town, an area plagued by drugs and a rising number of HIV cases, to mark the 19th World AIDS Day on Dec. 1.

There are 800 people reported to be living with HIV in the town, including more than 100 under the age of 18, local government statistics show.

The city is the only area recording a rise in HIV cases in the region, an overwhelmingly Muslim region with an estimated 60,000 infections, one-tenth of China's AIDS cases.

Like Amina, the performers are from a community-based children's activity center supported by Save the Children, a UK-based non-governmental organization for child welfare.

The center, a single-storey white brick house, is a few minutes walk from many homes. For Amina, it is a place where she can find friends to play with, draw, watch movies, and forget her sadness.

To protect children from HIV/AIDS, the center teaches them about drug taking, AIDS and how to treat people living with HIV without prejudice.

Other activities like group discussions and art sessions teach the children about the dangers of drugs and the risks AIDS.

Among scores of paintings hanging on the wall, there is one drawn by Amina: a needle under a big red cross that symbolizes the little girl's wish to eliminate drugs.

Adults are also invited to join the activities. A non-discriminatory environment is crucial to people tested HIV positive and their families. Adults' attitudes play a key role in the process as they influence others, particularly their kids.

"These activities give children infected with the HIV virus or living with HIV positive families comfort and hope," said Zhao Qi, a health official of Save the Children's China program.

She recalled a 10-year-old boy who refused to go to school when he learned his mother had contracted HIV last year. He cried, locked himself in his room and refused to talk with her.

He was later called to take part in a center-supported research program to interview vulnerable children, including children with one or both parents HIV positive.

"I learned that my mother was uncomfortable and regretful and I had added to her pain," the boy wrote in his interview record. After that, he talked with his mother and asked for her forgiveness.

In a dozen provinces around the country, Save the Children has set up more than 40 children's activity centers to create a protective and developmental environment for children, a concept welcomed by local governments.

For China, home to an estimated number of 650,000 people living with the HIV virus, "a small percentage point rise in the spread of HIV would translate into alarming infection figures", says Zhao. "Teaching children to be aware of AIDS is critical."

(Xinhua News Agency December 1, 2006)

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