Tran Tan Tam shrivels up in the arms of his grandmother whenever he encounters a stranger.
He grips her hands tightly and does not respond when I talk to him.
This 9-year-old is not the boy I met just six months ago, shortly after he had been pushed out of school. Parents of his first-grade classmates had threatened to hold their children back from school if they had to share the class with HIV-infected Tam.
Then, Tam had told me that he was saddened by the isolation he was experiencing and that he wanted to go back to school. After a sustained campaign by activists and social workers, and some media attention, he was able to go back to his school in Ho Chi Minh City's Nha Be District.
However, after he returned to school in mid-September, instead of becoming more cheerful, he has drawn into a shell of reticence and is deeply depressed.
"He has become silent since he returned to school," said Pham Thi Hai, Tam's grandmother who has been taking care of him since both his parents died of AIDS. "I have tried many times, but have not been able to get a word out of his mouth."
"He is too depressed to speak out," said Nguyen Thi Minh Phuong, founder of the Xuan Vinh group, a HCMC voluntary advocacy organization that campaigned for Tam's return to school. "It's all because of his growing awareness of an agony he has endured for a long time."
"My teacher often told me not to touch my classmates," Tam said, talking after being prompted by a volunteer with the group who has spent a long time with him. "I was also asked to bring my own bottle of water to class so that I won't have to ask for it from my friends."
His teachers did not help matters. They made him sit alone at the back of the class. At nine years old, that is tantamount to severe punishment, but the school management has shrugged it off, insisting they have not discriminated against him.
"We let Tam sit at the back of the class just because he's taller than his peers [who are all two years younger than Tam]. That's all," said Vo Thi Lai, principal of Trang Tan Khuong primary school. But Lai did not explain why Tam had to sit by himself.
Rough path to school
In 2006, the National Assembly, Vietnam's parliament, passed legislation that made it illegal to discriminate against anyone based on her/his HIV/AIDS status. Under current regulations, children cannot be denied access to school if they or any members of their family are living with HIV/AIDS. The laws also bar employers from firing infected employees, or doctors from refusing to treat someone based on his or her HIV status.
The Vietnamese Health Ministry estimates that there are around 280,000 people living with HIV in 2012, including 5,670 children.
Despite the clear policies and laws, enforcement agencies and advocacy groups have struggled to have HIV-infected students admitted to public schools. Other than parental pressure, the fact is that the schools are also not ready to receive the infected children, activists say.
Phuong said Tam's case was an example. "We have been struggling to get Tam back to school. But it appears to me that what is happening inside the school is not safe enough for him.
"When I asked the school management if they had asked their staff to punish students who discriminated against Tam, they just evaded my question," Phuong said. "They said instead that all the teachers have been told to teach the students how the HIV virus is transmitted and how it could spread. This is really ridiculous. All the students need to know is they should be sympathetic to their HIV-infected friends and that they must not ostracize them."
Lai, the school principal, insisted that she would not tolerate any kind of discrimination in the school. "You can rest assured that Tam has been treated the same as his friends."
Tam's silence tells a different story.
"˜The best thing'
On March 2, the Cu Chi District People's Committee, the local government, said they would renew efforts to send HIV-infected orphans back to school after a two-year ordeal.
Since September 2009, Thanh Nien Weekly has carried stories about the plight of the children at the Mai Hoa orphanage who have been denied admission to a public school because of the ruckus created by parents of other children.
"We are determined to bring the Mai Hoa orphans back to school in the upcoming school year," said Cao Thi Gai, Cu Chi District's vice mayor. "It's the right thing to do and it is the best thing for them."
Le Truong Giang, deputy chairman of the HCMC AIDS Committee, also said at a recent meeting that the best thing the authorities should strive to do for HIV-positive children is to let them study at public schools.
Phuong, who has been campaigning for dozens of HIV-infected children to go to school since she founded the group 11 years ago, said that normally, she would have concurred with Gai and Giang.
Now, because of Tam, she is not so sure.
"What's the point of sending him to school only to pile more misery on someone already devastated by stigma?"