The remarkable story of an Australian woman’s fight to show HIV positive children that their life is just as valuable as that of their peers.
Geraldine Cox always wanted children. “I just adore children,” she says. “I tried everything, but I never could get pregnant. I thought the universe was dealing me a nasty blow.” The universe, it seems, had other plans for Cox, who despite not having her own biological children, now has hundreds of young people calling her Mum.
As a young woman in the seventies, Cox travelled to Cambodia to work for the Department of Foreign Affairs, but fled the country at the time of the Pol Pot takeover. She returned in the 1990s to establish orphanages for some of the country’s neediest children. Cox was awarded membership to the Order of Australia in 2000 and has just set up her third orphanage.
The latest orphanage was opened in December last year by the Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen, on World AIDS Day, as the centre is dedicated to supporting and caring for children living with HIV. “We get children referred to us from hospitals where the parents have died from HIV and there is no one able or willing to care for the kids,” Cox says. “Without exception, when parents die from HIV, the extended family don’t want anything to do with the children if they are HIV positive too, so the kids are totally shunned by society.” While there are no data for the number of Cambodian children living with HIV, nor the number orphaned by HIV, it is estimated that there are over 75,000 people living with the disease.
Cox’s most recent orphanage is able to house 200 HIV positive children living in family cottages with “house parents”, to ensure the children have the experience of life within a family. Bringing the children up in a loving environment and with ongoing access to antiretro viral drugs means their bad fortune can begin to be reversed. It is a long process though, says Cox, as “there is a feeling that they are worthless, their self-respect is very low, and they know they are considered untouchable and unclean.”
Cox has an inherent sense that these children have a future, but not everyone in Cambodia feels the same way. Finding a school which would accept the orphans was a battle. “Government schools wouldn’t take them,” Cox says. “We managed to find a private school which would accept all the children but no one knows the children have HIV, not even the staff members. Otherwise the parents would take their kids away.” Currently there are seventy children living at the orphanage and attending the school.
In this way, Cox says, the children live double-lives, living amongst other HIV positive children at home in the orphanage, but are not able to share their burden with friends at school. “If people find out they have HIV, the kids are taunted so we have to keep on finding ways to build up their strength to cope with this discrimination,” Cox says. “We can’t stop the discrimination, we just have to build up the children’s knowledge that they have a good life ahead of them.”
And what a good life it can be. Cox is understandably proud of the achievements “her” children have made. She has recently been in Adelaide attending a hospitality graduation ceremony at Le Cordon Bleu for one of the boys who grew up in her orphanage. “He was eleven when he came to us and before that he used to sleep with the cows in a cowshed,” she says. “Now he is at the top of his field and his future is set. I’ve got another girl who will graduate with a nursing degree next year and wants to go back and work with children in Cambodia. I have fourteen children who graduated from year twelve and who are now doing entry tests in Cambodia for law, architecture, engineering, environment, and agriculture. I can’t tell you the level of reward and love that I get every day.”
So does she think the universe got it right, after all? “It wasn’t until I saw the first group of twenty-four kids in 1994 in Cambodia that I could almost hear the universe clapping its hands saying “At last, she’s bloody got it,” Cox laughs. “This is it. This is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Find out more about Geraldine’s work at http://www.scv.org.au/