Sarah Jane and her boy friend

According to the United Nations, a person 18 years of age or younger is a child.   By this definition, Cheche Atizado, the 16-year-old boy with whom Sarah Jane Salazar has admitted having sexual relations, could be a victim of child exploitation.  But who will file the case?  And to what end?

The public knows Sarah Jane, of course, not only as an adult, but as the first Filipino woman to come forward as an HIV-positive patient. The revelation of her relationship with the young boy has placed the Department of Health in a difficult bind.  Sarah Jane has been active as a DOH AIDS educator, in which capacity she lectures on the nature of the illness and how it may be avoided.

To its credit, the DOH leadership has led an educational campaign not only to inform people about AIDS, but also to promote an attitude of compassion and acceptance of persons who either carry the HIV or are already afflicted with AIDS.   Because the disease is commonly transferred through sexual contact – its victims have tended to be morally stigmatized.  And those who have suffered most from such stigmatization have been prostituted women and gays.

In other societies, the public reaction to AIDS has been one of hysteria and intolerance.  In one neighboring country, nationals who spent time working abroad are required to secure an HIV clearance before they are re-admitted into their homeland.  Here, AIDS patients undergo a ritual of social exclusion – like the lepers of an earlier time – and are kept hidden from the public view.  Deploying them as lecturers at schools, the way we do it here,  is simply unthinkable.

In contrast, largely as a result of the DOH campaign, Filipinos are probably among the most civilized in the world insofar as dealing with the AIDS problem is concerned.  But judging from the recently publicized reactions of the neighborhood in which Sarah Jane has been renting an apartment, this enlightened view of AIDS might soon give way to a misinformed vigilantism against all HIV and AIDS victims.  When that happens, the disease will go underground and make itself even more inaccessible to any kind of monitoring.

That is why it is perfectly understandable why, out of prudence, the DOH has resisted any temptation to restrict the mobility of Sarah Jane.  To do so might be taken as a signal of an offensive against HIV patients.  This politically correct policy is commendable.  However, it has its dangers.

If Sarah Jane had been a man, and Cheche a 16-year-old girl, would the government be as benign in its approach to the situation?  Ideally, it shouldn’t matter that Sarah Jane is an HIV carrier.  She should be free to live as normal a life as possible.  And that includes having a fulfilling sexual life with a partner of her choice so long as the partner is properly informed by her about her condition.

Unfortunately, a person of minor age is involved here, and the question arises as to whether the State is not compelled to take action to protect the interest of the minor.   The answer is not so simple.

From the way he talks about his family and his love for Sarah Jane, Cheche is clearly in a rebellious mood.  His family appears to have given up on him, after a dramatic attempt to rescue him from his girl friend.  Sarah Jane has said in some interviews that the boy used to take shabu, and that she has somehow succeeded in weaning him from the drug habit.  Now she has become a mother figure as well.

I assume that Cheche’s parents can appeal to the courts to regain custody of their son.  But they have said they don’t intend to.  I assume that the State, in this case the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), may also petition the courts and place Cheche under its protection.  It may be the legal thing to do, but is it also the wise thing to do?

A boy of 16 may not be a man, but he is no longer exactly a child either.  These days our children grow very fast.  If they are old enough to work, or fend for themselves in the streets, or be recruited as guerrillas, why can’t they be allowed to fall in love?  I do not think there is a way of separating Cheche from Sarah Jane without somehow putting him under detention.  But for what crime?  For falling in love with a person with HIV?  For being a minor?  A correct legal action may produce undesirable consequences.

I think that a lot depends on Sarah Jane herself.  If she has learned anything from the lectures and the sharing she has given to various audiences, she should know – as an AIDS activist —  what her responsibility is to somebody like Cheche.  Their relationship, if handled with sensitivity, could be a perfect occasion for exemplifying all the human qualities that we wish  to cultivate in a community facing the reality of AIDS.

It is ironic that this task has fallen squarely on Sarah Jane’s lap.  For she has often seemed smug and cynical in public, if not constantly demanding special treatment or attention.   She sometimes talks of Cheche in pretty much the same tone, as if to say:  what do you expect me to do — or am I to be blamed if the boy is madly in love with me?

Sarah Jane must begin by looking at herself.  She can re-describe her life and treat it as if she willed it that way.  She can re-invent its purpose, assign it new meanings, and align the remaining years to that purpose.  Hopefully, that purpose will be one of benevolence, the true mark of nobility.  Then she can say, with style —  she demands no love or sympathy.  She only gives it.


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