This year, six-year old Binh Luom went to kindergarten. Binh, his older brother, and his mother live in a small community in northern Vietnam. His family faces stigma and discrimination because Binh and his mother are living with HIV/AIDS and because his father died of AIDS.
In 2004, when Binh was one year old, his mother submitted his application to attend kindergarten. School administrators rejected the application, citing an official regulation which states that children with infectious diseases can be excluded from school, at the discretion of school administrators.
However, Vietnam's National Law on HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control explicitly states that educational establishments cannot refuse to admit students on the grounds that they are HIV-positive.
A lack of understanding of HIV/AIDS-related regulations and laws is one cause of stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) in Vietnam.
Beginning in 2008, Mrs. Luom received assistance from the Hanoi Legal Clinic, and thanks to their dedicated efforts, Binh's kindergarten application was accepted and he reclaimed his right to education.
The Hanoi Legal Clinic is one of five clinics established in 2007 with support from the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to provide legal assistance to PLWHA and others affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The clinic's legal staff advocate for the rights of PLWHA and reduction of HIV/AIDS-related stigma. With the clinic's support, clients gain access to school, employment, and health care.
Mrs. Luom learned about the legal clinic when members of her PLWHA support group attended a communication session led by clinic staff.
Mrs. Luom said, "Before I had the help of the Hanoi Legal Clinic, I went to the school alone four times—but the headmaster did not accept Binh's kindergarten application."
Hanoi Legal Clinic staff worked with teachers and administrators at the kindergarten to help them understand the law and to reduce HIV/AIDS-related stigma at the school. They also encouraged the Ministry of Health to work with the Ministry of Education and Training to clarify the regulation on infectious disease in schools and to ensure correct application of national HIV/AIDS laws at the provincial and local levels.
Binh's case served as a catalyst for change: the Ministry of Education and Training issued a nationwide directive, requiring that all schools ensure the right of people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS to enroll in school and not be subject to HIV testing prior to acceptance.
To increase awareness of this directive, the Hanoi Legal Clinic conducted a training workshop for administrators and teachers from 28 of Vietnam's 64 provinces, educating them about the directive and national HIV/ AIDS law.
Due to the clinic's advocacy, not only is Binh now enrolled in school, but many other HIV-positive children across Vietnam who faced similar discrimination have also gained access to education.
"Binh would never have been able to go to school without the help of the Hanoi Legal Clinic" said Mrs. Luom, "Absolutely."
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