A lot of stigma still surround people living with HIV (PLHIV). Despite increased awareness and medical advancements that have made it possible for them to live a normal life by taking few precautions, they are still heavily discriminated and considered ‘socially dead’, most often blamed and abandoned to their fate. For women living with the virus, it is worse. They experience ‘double stigma’ with greater social disadvantages. This is because communities are often less tolerant of women living with HIV/AIDS than their male counterparts. Women living with HIV (WLHIV) are viewed to be promiscuous, dirty, irresponsible or bewitched.
In a bid to get a snippet of the stigma WLHIV often experience, Sunday Sun met with some young women living with the virus. Their story showed not just the stigma they faced, but also the emotional trauma and devastating shock that hit them when they were diagnosed to be having HIV.
‘Stigma made me wish for death’
One of the ladies, Ms. Charity (not real name to protect her identity), has been living with the virus for almost eight years. Charity has been on antiretroviral (ARV) drugs to suppress the virus and stabilize her health, but her biggest challenge is the serious pangs of stigma she has been facing all because of her status. She has lost her job thrice and has been discriminated against by her own mother and elder sister.
Narrating her ordeal, Charity disclosed that she was living a normal life in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, combining her job at a restaurant, with running her hair salon, until in 2012 when she became ill, went for a test, and diagnosed to have tested positive to HIV. “I noticed that I was emaciating gradually, but I felt that it could be because of the stress of managing my job at the restaurant, running my salon, plus the fasting and praying session I was involved in at my church at that time. But I noticed I was having severe pains in my tummy, and consistent headaches. So, I went to the hospital for malaria/typhoid test. A few days later, when I went to collect the result, I noticed the medical officials were all staring at me when I walked into the clinic and told them my name. I was very uncomfortable at the way they stared at me. The nurses didn’t tell me anything about my test result, they only handed me the paper, and said I should go. So I left. But I knew something was amiss.
“So, a few days later, during my church’s health week programme, I decided to use that opportunity to do blood screening. Thereafter, the person in charge of HIV screening called me aside, and it was there that I was told that I have been diagnosed to be living with HIV. I was shocked, and I refused to believe the medical report. So, I hurriedly left the church.”
Charity went into denial for so many months, refusing to accept that she had tested positive to HIV. “I tore several other medical reports that confirmed that I’m living with HIV. I kept going to different pastors for prayers, after which I’ll tear the test result. But I was so scared. I felt like my world has come to an end, and that society has turned against me. So, I gave up on myself, my dreams and aspirations. I told some of my close friends and employer about what I was passing through. I needed someone to comfort me, but all I got was stigma, scorn, and abhorrence. Even my mother started discriminating against me, calling me names. Also, I lost my job after telling my employers, my boss asked me to resign without paying my salaries. Even at the public hospitals, where we go for our routine medicals and collection of ARV drugs, many of the workers there that should be caregivers, stigmatized those of us WLHIV. At the public hospital in Port Harcourt (name withheld), some of the medical workers there talked to us with disdain and treated us like animals. Even when I changed to another government hospital in Asaba (name withheld), the medical workers there were no different. They exploited us with many charges and forced us to pay before they could answer us. I was appalled at how the medical staff talked and treated us, so I vowed never to go any of those hospitals again. I preferred to die rather than face the stigma and insults at public hospitals.
“However, I was again introduced to a Catholic hospital in Asaba (name withheld) where I could run free tests and get free counseling and ARV drugs. I was reluctant to go to any other hospital because of my experiences at the government hospitals in Port Harcourt and Asaba. I made up my mind not to go to any other hospital and kept praying that I should just die.”
After her torrid experiences, Charity summarily told Sunday Sun, that the majority of Nigerian society does not show much love and support for PLHIV. “The discrimination is very high. And I must tell you that Nigeria still has a long way to go in helping PLHIV,” she cried.
‘From joy to sorrow’
Ms. Gift (not real name to protect her identity) is another WLHIV that has been stigmatized because of her status. For Ms. Gift, the day she was found to be living with HIV, turned what could have been a happy day, into the saddest day in her life. “I found out about my status in 2010 at Imo State, when a young man in my church proposed to me. We both went to do our lab tests in preparation for our marriage. I was feeling very healthy at that time, so my mind was clear, as we waited for the results. When they called us he went in, collected the lab results and hid it from me. He came out and just said that the nurses said we should come back later for the results. I knew he wasn’t telling me the truth because his attitude towards me suddenly changed. He became withdrawn and didn’t show interest in our relationship anymore. I persisted in asking about our lab test results until he finally told me that the nurses recommended that I should go and do another test at any government hospital around me. I wanted to understand what was going on, so I went to the general hospital for the test. It was there that I was told that I was HIV positive. I was shocked because I was confused about how I could have contracted it. As a young lady, I have only being involved in one relationship with a leader in my parish. And when I broke up with him, I didn’t have any other affair with another man, not even with my fiancé. We just met in church, and he said he wanted to marry me.”
Like Ms. Charity, Ms. Gift also refused to accept the report, instead, she resorted to intensive prayers and fasting, hoping for miracle extermination of the HIV virus out from my body. Sadly, nothing much changed. “I prayed to get healed by a powerful cleric, and for some years, I was healthy. But in 2017, I had a fever and noticed rashes all over my body. My mind flashed back that it could be HIV giving me health issues. But I still refused to accept it. So, in 2018, I came down to Lagos to visit a popular man of God (name withheld) that people say has a miraculous power to heal PLHIV.
“But my coming to Lagos made my condition became worse, my legs began to swell and I had rashes all over. Ministers in the church couldn’t offer me a place to stay and wait for the man of God. So, I was stranded and helpless. I couldn’t go back to the village because I can’t stand the shame and stigma there if they see my condition. I managed to get a job as a cleaner, but I had no accommodation so I slept outside in the markets for over five months. My condition worsened. My employers were worried so they asked me to stop work and treat myself. Meanwhile, I kept trying to see the man of God, but members of the church kept chasing me out. I then went to another popular church in the area (name withheld) to solicit help. They gave a little money, which I invested, and started selling packets of shaving stick at Ikotun market.”
Even though she felt excruciating pains all over her body while selling her wares, Gift continued to hope on a miracle healing by a man of God. But she shifted to other plans of how to start accessing ARV drugs that would help keep her alive. “I was selling shaving stick along the road one evening at Ikotun when a passerby noticed my swollen leg. The lady called and told me she knows what I’m passing through. She then told me to leave what I’m doing and hurry immediate to the Isolo General Hospital, and register to be getting free ARV drugs, because my condition is getting critical, and would affect my liver if I don’t move quickly. I was gripped by fear. So, early morning the following day, I went to the hospital, and met a certain Ms. Eno Morris, who now consoled me, gave me some hope.”
‘ARV, restored my hope to live’
After testing positive to HIV, Eno Morris was also yoked in denial, agony, and stigma. Her health was relapsing, but after counseling, she decided to try the antiretroviral therapy (ART). That decision was a major turning point for Ms. Morris because the virus was drastically suppressed, and her health improved miraculously. After her positive experience with ART, Ms. Morris was spurred to be the light and join in giving hope to PLHIV, especially women. She established Women and Children of Inspiration (WOMCI), a charity organization for vulnerable persons.
Reminiscing how her journey all started, Ms. Morris told Sunday Sun it all began in 2002 at Apapa, Lagos State when she noticed that her health was failing. “I kept falling ill intermittently, I became lean and looked like an old woman. Also, there were black spots all over my body, my legs became swollen and my hair started falling out. It became difficult for me to drink water and eat food because I noticed that thrush has grown on my tongue and mouth. And I stopped seeing my menstrual flow. People kept saying I have been bewitched from an evil coven, and advised me to go to church. But after several bouts of prayers, with no improvement, I was advised by a pastor to explore medical options. So, I summoned the courage and went to the clinic for a test where I tested positive for HIV. And immediately the hospital staff began to distance themselves from me. They refused to allow me to sit down on their chairs. I recalled that in my relationship, I have had unprotected sex with my boyfriend whom I am fully aware that he is randy. I had once caught him in a brothel, but on confrontation he vehemently denied it. I later broke up with him after I got tired of his lies and deceits.
“After the ordeal, I was faced with the challenge of coping with HIV. And after much encouragement from the adherence counselor at NIMR (Nigerian Institute of Medical Research) Yaba, I decided to start my ARV drugs. I then began to notice that my health improved tremendously. I started seeing my menstrual cycle again after several months that it stopped flowing, my hair started growing again and the body generally rejuvenated once more. And since then, I hadn’t looked back on taking my drugs. Truth be said, the love and affection that I got from family hastened my healing.
“Today, I’ve been living with HIV for over 12 years, and with the help of ARV regimen, I can live a normal life like anyone, because the HIV viral load in my body has been suppressed. And I’m happy now.”
Why WLHIV suffer more stigma than men
Ms. Morris who is now a trained expert in issues surrounding HIV explained why WLHIV get stigmatized more than the menfolk. “Women are more vulnerable to HIV not because they are loose, but because of the physiology of their bodies. Women bear more brunt when it has to do with HIV as it affects their marriages, jobs, and even relationship with their children, etc. Again, our society has given HIV a woman’s face. Most people especially religious leaders have continually painted HIV infection to be the fault of women. Also, women are disadvantaged when it comes to demanding their sexual rights. They are unable to make decisions on the correct and consistent use of condoms. This exposes married women with randy husbands at great risk of HIV.”