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I was diagnosed with HIV and I still haven’t had the courage to tell my family or friends about it,” says Rina (not her real name), 18, who comes from a middle class ‘liberal’ family in Dhaka. “I know what people will immediately think — I am a depraved woman with no morals or values — and I will be an embarrassment and a burden to my family.”
Rina says she is always fearful that her family will recognise her symptoms. The constant lies and hide-and-seek has taken more of a toll on her body than the disease itself. “I don’t see the point of living like this anymore,” she shares ruefully.
Rina’s refusal to speak up about her condition is a result of local attitudes regarding HIV and AIDS. People still have many misconceptions about the disease and overtly criminalise and discriminate those affected or infected with it. As a result, there is an impenetrable silence surrounding the issue as most patients try to hide their condition for fear of rebuke and repercussions.
Many children and adolescents with HIV got it from their parents, like Peu whose mother and father are both positive. “We don’t disclose the fact to anyone except our immediate family,” says Peu’s mother, Henna. “God only knows how they will treat my child in school, if they would even allow him to go to classes.”
A person living with HIV in Bangladesh has to face constant discrimination, isolation and exclusion from the family, society and the state if he/she do divulge his/her positive status. “If a diabetes patient can disclose his sickness, why can’t we?” asks 17-year-old Rahela (not her real name) whose husband transmitted the disease to her. “People still think they can contract the disease from talking to us, eating with us or touching us. I know many people who have been thrown out of their homes because they told their families,” she says.
Rahela herself was only twelve when she was married off to a thirty-year-old migrant worker. Fifteen days after the wedding, he left her to go back to Saudi Arabia. Two years later, he came back, sick, and after spending three months in the hospital, he died.
She was fourteen when she was diagnosed with the disease — two days before her SSC exams. “When my husband passed away, my in-laws blamed me for his death. They said I was the reason he died,” she shares.
Now both her in-laws and parents understand that she is not to blame for her condition or her husband’s death. She is scheduled to wed her husband’s brother next month. When asked if she consented to the marriage, she says, “Who else will marry me? People used to send a lot of marriage proposals to my house but we couldn’t tell them about my disease. So then my in-laws suggested that I marry their younger son and my parents agreed.”
There is a real need to address mainstream views about HIV and AIDS so that those affected with it can continue to lead normal life. The treatment process is long and difficult, and a patient needs support and acceptance of friends, family and community to sustain the protracted battle against HIV. Oftentimes, however, given our socio-cultural reality, it is people’s attitudes, rather than the disease itself, that prove to be more deadly.