Nearly half the parents who have been protesting against a school in Goa this month for admitting students they say are HIV-positive have decided to pull their children out of the institution.

Nineteen of the 40 parents who have been protesting in Rivona, a mining village 55-km south of Panaji, applied on Tuesday to the town’s state-funded Fatima High School for school-leaving certificates for their children. The parents are demanding that the school send away 23 students whom they believe are infected.

“We do not wish ill for those children, but we cannot risk our children’s health,” said Ana Rodrigues, whose children study in Class 2 and 7 respectively.

The 23 children live in Nitya Seva Niketan, an orphanage for children of HIV-positive parents, run by the Pilar Fathers, one of the numerous Roman Catholic orders of Goa. The orphanage says the children are not HIV-positive.

“We tried to allay the parents’ fears about HIV,” says Father Maverick Fernandes, a Church official connected to the school who is counselling the parents. Even if they were infected, we informed them about a Supreme Court judgment that says there cannot be discrimination against these students. Some seemed to be convinced.”

The protests have shocked the state, which is proud of its 87% literacy rate. They have revealed the huge social stigma that HIV-positive patients still face, the misconceptions surrounding the disease and the difficulty of integrating infected children into the mainstream.

State education officials have intervened and are talking to the protesting parents, hoping they will change their minds. They have scheduled a meeting with the parents on Thursday afternoon.

“We tried our best to convince the parents,” said Ramkrisnhna Samant, south Goa's deputy director for education. “At the same time, we told them that the students cannot be removed from school.”

Fourth School
This is the fourth school this academic year in which children of the orphanage have faced resistance. The first protests took place in June, when the Don Bosco school in Sulcorna, also in south Goa, was forced to turn the children away following similar pressure from the parents of existing students.

Earlier this month, parents of the school in Rivona protested against the school’s admission of 13 other children from the orphanage who are confirmed to be HIV-positive. In the face of these protests, the orphanage took them out from Fatima High School and moved them to another Church-run school in north Goa.

The agitating parents want the orphanage to do the same thing with the 23 children, although it has not been established whether these children are indeed infected.

The 13 HIV-positive students, and the 23 other children of the orphanage, all between six and 15 years of age, were studying under the central government-sponsored Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan scheme. Before joining this school this academic year, they were taught at the orphanage.

Social stigma
Rodrigues, one of the protesting parents, says she is aware of how AIDS is contracted, but says that mingling in school carries risks.

“Imagine if one of the HIV-positive students falls down in an accident and bleeds,” she said. “And imagine that one of my children reaches out to help them. Or imagine if my child has an exposed wound and there is contact with the HIV-positive students. Imagine what will happen.”

Sister Alphonsa Porathur, who runs the orphanage, said the protests had taken a toll on the children. She said the orphanage was trying to talk to them and boost their morale.

Sameera Kazi, chairperson of the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, sees hope in the fact that not all the 170-odd parents whose children study in the Rivona school are part of the protest.

“This can be resolved, but not at the cost of the 23 students. Hopefully, the parents will see sense soon,” she says.

Raison Almeida, an activist, is threatening to knock on the doors of the Bombay High Court bench in Panaji if the school removes the 23 students.