GUINEA-BISSAU: Paying the price for disclosing their HIV status

Friday, November 9, 2007

If they could go back in time, perhaps they would do things differently.

Three women who revealed their HIV-positive status on local television have seen their lives fall apart since they spoke out.

The programme was produced by international non-governmental organisation (NGO) ActionAid, with the support of the African Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS.

According to Carlos Rui Ribeiro, the coordinator for ActionAid in Guinea Bissau, the women were warned about the impact their television appearance could have on their lives.

“This is the first time this has ever happened in the country and naturally it has had a very major impact. Even if they were psychologically prepared, they weren’t prepared socially. In other words, when they came home, their husbands weren’t ready and could react unpredictably,” he explained.

According to the women, who preferred not to be named, many of the consequences of going public with their status were completely unexpected and they are still learning to deal with them. Displays of prejudice from neighbours, friends and even their own families have become a daily occurrence.

“My oldest son gets into fights on the soccer field almost every day because his team-mates make comments about me and say that he’s got AIDS too. This isn’t true. My children are healthy,” said one of them.

One of the women has been abandoned by her husband and another was forced to leave her home and now lives with her three children in a small room where the walls could collapse at any time.

For now, the three women work on ActionAid's No Casa (“Our House”) project as HIV and AIDS educators in their communities. They will be guaranteed a salary for the two-month duration of the project.

Their difficulties have made others think twice about going public with their HIV-positive status, but Ribeiro promised that ActionAid would not give up fighting AIDS-related stigma. However long the process, he maintained, they were on the right path.

“Someone has to begin showing their face,” he said.

Suspicious stares

This has not been easy. Even active members of the Nova Vida (“New Life”) Association, an organisation that supports HIV-positive patients in Bissau’s Andalai district, prefer not to speak so openly about the disease.

Nova Vida is one of eight such associations in the country.

Since it began its work, it has registered 1,293 HIV-infected individuals and currently has 403 members, but those entering the building where its modest facilities are located still risk the suspicious stares of neighbours.

Ali Hizazi, a psychologist with the Céu e Terra (Sky and Earth) project, an NGO that works with pregnant HIV-positive women, said preparing someone to disclose their HIV status is a lengthy process. It should include: ensuring they have sufficient knowledge about the virus and how it's transmitted; they have reached a personal acceptance of their condition and they are involving their families.

Bissif’nde Blata, a janitorial assistant at Nova Vida who is HIV-positive, said that admitting your status makes those who prefer to remain anonymous uncomfortable.

“In Guinea Bissau there are people who take the test and know that they’re infected, but who hide and point their fingers at those who are brave enough to show their faces,” she said. “The people used to call me a witch because I was sick for a long time and didn’t know what I had. Now I don’t see them anymore.”

With a population of 1.4 million, Guinea Bissau has an HIV prevalence rate of 3.8 percent, according to UNAIDS.

The country's National Programme for the Fight against AIDS estimates that as of June 2007, a total of 554 people were undergoing antiretroviral treatment.

Source: PlusNews