Life as a HIV/AIDS advocate can be both challenging and uplifting. It is challenging because daily you are inundated with various issues that cut across treatment, prevention, care and support, which requires strategic and deliberate plans to address. The hardest part is that you can spend years trying to address a singular issue. On the other hand it is uplifting because every act of service is for the benefit of the people you serve. Imagine having to advocate for free ARVs, so people can have access to life saving medicines and finally it becomes reality, viola! The most interesting part is when there is a breakthrough in policies; advocates/activists quickly forget how arduous it was to effect that change, focusing more on the possibilities; like a long walk to freedom.
Beyond addressing challenges, influencing or contesting policies; it is dealing with the human elements and rigid systems that pose the biggest challenge in the job of a HIV/AIDS advocate/activist. How do you get an adamant government to sign the anti-stigma bill into law? How do you get them to own their response and commit more to domestic funding? How do you get them to see and explore other alternative means of funding as against depending heavily on international donors? How do you get them to increase the budget allocation to health? How do you get them to understand that HIV/AIDS should not be seen as a business venture but as people lives; and every decision has the ability to impact negatively or positively?
I found myself asking some of these questions few days ago, when a young lady I met last year called me feeling dejected and frustrated. Let me take you back a little bit about how we met. She had called me sometime in March 2014, sobbing profusely over the phone because she had just tested positive to HIV. I calmed her down the best way I could and asked her to come see me in my office. Over the weekend, I kept hoping and praying she wouldn’t do something stupid; so I constantly sent her messages, praying the weekend would fly by quickly. By 9am on Monday she was in my office; hiding behind her sun glasses and I didn’t need anyone to tell me why.
She was worried about how people would treat her, worried about if she would ever get married and have children; she was worried about what would happen to her job, if they found out about her status……she knew there were lifesaving medicines, but her greatest concern was STIGMA and the DISCRIMINATION she was going to face. I re-assured her that on my job, I have met people who have been living with the virus for years and are productive in their endeavors.
I handed her over to our ART clinician and counselor and kept in touch with her constantly. We became friends and since then I have watched her deal with the reality of her status and she has been handling it well; not letting being positive stop her from chasing her dreams and living her life. Fast forward to 2015, she called me to say she got a better offer in a bigger school (oh by the way, she is a teacher); but the only snag is the school is requesting they carry out series of tests; top of the list is HIV. She said she knows she will never get the job the moment they find out her status and for the first time in a long time she felt the sense of hopelessness she had, when she first found out about her status.
I was livid. We all know that HIV testing is supposed to be voluntary and it should not be a criterion for hiring people. It should also never be a basis for refusing or terminating one’s employment or admission. This is the reason why people are afraid to get tested, the reason why people shy away from accessing treatment; because they do not want to be treated differently and denied opportunities they deserve.
I was more livid because the Country is yet to sign its anti-stigma law, one that would protect PLHIVs from being marginalized and denied opportunities. It took a long time for the bill to be passed and now the signing is delayed for whatever reason. A country like Nigeria which has the 2nd highest HIV/AIDS burden in Africa cannot and should not be without an anti-stigma law. Stigma affects treatment and prevention greatly; that is why we have the “zero stigma/discrimination” goal.
Nigeria was supposed to have signed the anti-stigma bill during 2014 world AIDS day but that never happened and now with all the attention on forthcoming elections, one can only wonder when the bill would be signed. I am committed to contributing my quota as a HIV/AIDS advocate to ensure that the bill becomes law. Stigma and discrimination can be reduced to the barest minimum when there is a law in place. We cannot afford to be silent about this; it is long overdue.