I want my kids to be educated and empowered so they can become financially strong
Life seemed to have given up on Diya (name changed) when she tested HIV-positive. The young girl from Shivamogga district was abandoned by her family at the tender age of eight and was left with nowhere to turn. Everything changed for the better when she landed at Snehadeep in Mangaluru. Now, she is a happy child, receiving treatment and attending school, with hopes of a better future.
Diya is one of the 27 children staying at the care centre for children with HIV, run by Mangaluru native Tabassum. In the midst of intense social stigma surrounding the health condition, Tabassum’s initiative gives children an education, a community and most importantly, a home.
The 39-year-old has, time and again, seen how family and society react to an HIV diagnosis – they distance themselves from the person. “Fifteen years ago, I lost a close friend. When doctors informed us that she was HIV-positive, her family members did not even want to touch her body,” she recounts.
Left alone to perform the last rites for her friend, Tabassum became resolute. “I decided to leave my NGO job and dedicate my efforts to children suffering from HIV,” she says.
The additional problems women and girls face in society troubled Tabassum. In 2010, she started Snehadeep, a centre exclusively for girl children who have tested positive for HIV, and have lost their parents or come from a single-parent home. What started with six kids, now has 27 young girls aged between seven and 18, from across the state.
Recalling her own struggles, Tabassum says, “I hail from a poor family. Though I secured distinction in SSLC, my family could not afford to support my studies. Somehow I finished my PU.” After marriage, she pursued a degree for two years while working for an NGO. Even though she was unable to finish her degree as her family grew, it influenced how she thought about her future.
A family member of Tabassum says, “It is hard work and dedication which has kept her going.”
Still battling financial troubles, Tabassum has taken up various endeavours to support the centre, including a fabric and tailoring shop. “I used to utilise the income from my shop, along with sponsors’ support to run the centre,” says Tabassum. The pandemic spelled doom for this venture. Of late, she has started a catering business and she is able to manage for now.
The care centre requires a minimum of Rs 1.2 lakh per month to look after the children, excluding expenses incurred on hospitalisation in case of emergency. “We are still running the centre in a rented house and the challenges are aplenty,” says Tabassum.
While there are no permanent sponsors, locals come forward to donate and spend some time at the centre. “We have been celebrating festivals, birthdays, and anniversaries with the children,” says Sachitha Nandagopal, executive director, Centre for Integrated Learning, an NGO in Mangaluru. She appreciates the motherly affection Tabassum showers on the children, regardless of their cultural or religious backgrounds.
Every day, as the gate of Snehadeep opens and Tabassum enters the premises, children surround her and share daily updates from their schools and colleges for hours. She interacts with the children, clears their doubts and monitors other activities at the centre.
Tabassum spends eight to nine hours at the care centre every day. “Spending time with these kids and listening to the happy stories of their experiences at school gives me peace of mind,” she says. Apart from Tabassum, there are three paid staff.
Shanthi (name changed), a staff member, says, “Tabassum and the centre are doing good work which not many dare to take up.”
A testament to the power of rehabilitation herself, Shanthi grew up in the home. After studying nursing, she decided to return as an employee. She now monitors the children’s health and medications.
Lauding the efforts of the care centre, District Aids Control Officer Dr Badruddin says that centres taking care of children with HIV have been instrumental. “They help in nurturing the children, helping them, in all possible ways, to lead a good life,” he adds.
The children at Snehadeep undergo antiretroviral therapy at a government hospital in the city. “My first priority is their health, and then their education. I want my kids to be educated and empowered so they can become financially strong,” Tabassum says.
In addition to food and treatment, children also receive counselling. This is essential, as children with HIV suffer not only physical consequences but psychological ones too. The social stigma of being diagnosed weighs heavily on them. Recalling a painful story, Tabassum says, “A 17-year-old girl who was abandoned after she lost both her parents to AIDS was in her last stage and wished to be with her siblings for a day. However, they refused even to have a glimpse at her. When she passed away, I conducted her last rites.”
After being admitted to the centre, children have become physically strong due to good nutrition and medical treatment. Over time, they become more active and confident as they interact with other children at the home and in their schools.
Rajmohan Bhandary of Rotary Club Mangalore Midtown says, “With the limited resources available, Tabassum is giving life to children who are suffering. When their own families have abandoned them, she has been able to bring a smile to their faces.”