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Ethiopia

Living in the Shadow Of Fear

The Monitor (Addis Ababa)
November 6, 1999
By Alemayehu Takele

Addis Ababa - Berhane Kelkay, 32, never thought that she would be a social outcast when she went public about her HIV status. However, soon after people learnt that she was infected with the virus that causes the deadly disease AIDS, she became a victim of discrimination and alienation.

People kept their distance not only from her, but also from her children as well. Berhane whose life is now forever affected by HIV/AIDS, was born and grew up in the southern commercial town Awassa.

She had always been faithful to her husband. But her fidelity alone was not enough to protect her from contracting the virus.

She got it from her husband who died of AIDS six years ago. Berhane had always been aspiring for a good life for her and three children.

But her aspiration soon evaporated into thin air after she was tested HIV-positive following the death of her husband. She took a bold step to go public and educate the society about HIV/AIDS.

Sadly, the reward she got from the public were hostility and alienation because of the stigma attached to the disease. Perhaps, the greatest problem confronting those living with HIV/AIDS is the taboo surrounding the virus.

Stigma prevents a compassionate response even from one's own family, leave alone remote acquaintances or the society at large. When Berhane made public her HIV status two years ago, her relations with her parents soared.

"They (her parents) were initially sympathetic towards me. But after I went public, the sympathy faded away." The fear of saying "I have HIV" often leads to deliberate denial and reinforces the sense of secrecy and shame shrouding the disease.

Berhane says it is very difficult for people living with HIV/AIDS to go public for fear of stigmatization. Currently, she is providing private counseling services to more than ten persons with AIDS (pwas) in her hometown Awassa.

"They (HIV-positive persons) fear that they could be rejected by their spouses, relatives or the society if they reveal they are infected with the virus," she says. Berhane has tried on so many occasions to persuade PWAS to go public.

But most of them were not ready to do that. "I know they understand what I try to tell them, but they do not want to go public.

It is very difficult to free them from the shadow of fear they are living in," she said. "Most of them strictly warn me not to tell people that they have the virus.

My services to them should be kept secret," Berhane added. So far the number of HIV-infected persons who have demonstrated the courage to break the stigma and educate their fellow citizens by being open about their HIV status is very few.

Sometimes, however, the stigma and hostility could be too powerful to stand even for a courageous individual like Berhane. Berhane says not only herself, but also her children had paid a dear price for defying the conspiracy of silence on HIV/AIDS.

What is worrying her most is the discrimination her children are subjected to at school. It breaks her heart to hear her children say that they are abused because of her.

Students shun them because their mother has AIDS. "As most people in Awassa know that I have the virus and their father died of AIDS, students torture my children with harsh words.

They come home and cry desperately. That makes me very sad," she added.

People living with HIV/AIDS are sometimes subjected to violence. Once, a woman went on the television to confess that she had the virus.

Her neighbours soon massed out and stoned her family's residence. Berhane says Pwas would have no privacy once people know that they have the virus.

"Most people in my hometown are usually pointing fingers at me. I don't have any privacy at all.

I can say I have become a source of gossip." Most of the people in Ethiopia are aware of the fatality of the AIDS pandemic. But societal attitude toward people living with HIV/AIDS is still a cause for concern.

The notion that people living with HIV/AIDS are a big "shame" to the society still exists in the minds of many. In a country where hypocrisy and stigmatization are deeply-entrenched many people simply do not want to know if they are HIV infected, even when counseling and testing are offered.

And the minority of people who know their HIV status rarely share it with others, even in confidential support groups. If given sympathy, love as well as proper care, people living with HIV/AIDS can live longer.

Indeed they deserve our respect and sympathy. The society in general should be able to break the conspiracy of silence and help HIV-positive persons free themselves from living in the shadow of fear.


Copyright (c) 1999 The Monitor - Addis Ababa. Distributed via Africa News Online (www.africanews.org). For information about the content or for permission to redistribute, publish or use for broadcast, contact the publisher.

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