Despite the advancements in HIV/AIDS care since the epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, the shame of the disease still haunts those infected today. For those infected at younger ages, the challenge of coming out, revealing your status and helping others deal with the stigma, seems an insurmountable task. Mmegi Correspondent, NNASARETHA KGAMANYANE speaks to a young man who stepped out from the shadows
Experts believe there is a cyclical relationship between stigma and HIV. People, who experience stigma and discrimination and are marginalised for whatever reason, appear to be more vulnerable to HIV. Conversely, those living with HIV are more vulnerable to experiencing stigma and discrimination.
Heroes are needed to break the bitter cycle by standing up, revealing their HIV+ status and helping others to accept themselves. More positive champions are required to end the stigma around HIV, and while over the years, many have heeded the call, few have been teenagers or young people.
But young people do get infected. They do deal with the trauma of believing their lives are over. They do deal with the same of hiding in plain sight around their HIV- peers. The mob psychology that accompanies the younger generation means most would rather run with the pack, than risk ostracisation for revealing one’s status.
At a tender age, Gaborone (who prefers to be called GC) found out he was infected with HIV. Now at just 23, he has spent years battling to accept his status. As an HIV Treat All Champion, he now uses his experience to encourage his peers, a sort of cathartic endeavour for himself.
Run through the US Embassy, the Treat All Champions Campaign has enlisted 30 people living openly with HIV to mobilise their communities to address stigma, along with other barriers that prevent Batswana from knowing their status, and enrolling on ARV treatment when diagnosed with HIV.
The Champions held a celebration of the Treat All Champions this week in Gaborone, where Mmegi met with GC.
Like any teen, GC was eager to explore life and was excited about his future, having just enrolled at university.
He underwent routine testing at some point during those days and received the shock of his life. He tested positive for HIV. Even today, he is not willing to say how he believes he was infected. GC remembers vowing not to reveal or share his status with anyone up until he went home to his parents for the holidays.
“My aunt (maid) saw my medical report. I don’t know why I took it with me that particular time because I told myself that I was going to take my secret to the grave.
“She showed my mother my results. I guess it was because she was shocked and was too close to my mother that she couldn’t hide that away from her. “To my shock, my mother called me and confronted me about it.
“She told me that she would support and still loved me the same way she did
Even though he had been afraid to disclose his status and felt unworthy, his family became his support system as they all showered him with love. This gave him confidence and made him realise he was the same person he had been before testing positive.
GC decided to continue pursuing his dreams.
“It is very crucial for young people in a similar situation to have strong support systems.”
Participating in the Treat all Champions Project also helped him realise that it was selfish to not let loved ones in, more especially during those crucial times when one’s status drives one into despair.
“Let people in. It is very selfish to keep these kinds of things to yourself. I know I wanted to keep my status to myself, but that would have been selfish and would have affected people around me more than myself. It is always good to have people who you can confide in and a shoulder to cry on,” he said. During his role as a Treat All Champion, one of GC’s memorable moments include helping a young HIV+ girl who was still in her senior secondary school. The young girl’s family had chased her out of the house because she had the disease.
The young girl was feeling suicidal, but her outlook changed after GC shared his story with her.
“I have realised that many people still lack knowledge about HIV. Many still associate it with promiscuous behaviour and sexual intercourse.
The young girl’s parents thought she got the disease because she snuck out every night to sleep with different men.
“After educating them about HIV and sharing my story with them, they were happy and reconciled with their daughter.
“She even has social media pages where she shares her experience and urges other young girls to take care of themselves,” he said. The Botswana Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (BONEPWA+) worked with the US Embassy and the Health Ministry in the Treat All Champions programme.
The Champions volunteer at health facilities in their own communities within Gaborone, Southern District, Kweneng East, Kgatleng and Mahalapye districts. All the Champions who served in the project are open about their HIV+ status and support community HIV activities.
Two of the Champions, Pontsho Sekisang and Stanley Monageng, appear alongside three other Batswana who are living openly with HIV in the Embassy’s documentary film Have It All: The Story of the Have It All Program in Botswana.