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In 1986 when I first heard that a man had died due to AIDS, I told myself that we are “free” from the HIV. The AIDS victim was, after all, staying abroad and he must have got the virus overseas! How wrong I was.

Two years later, at the first-ever International AIDS Memorial Day in Dataran Merdeka, KL, a good-looking guy who was manning one of the NGO stalls caught my attention. He was selling T-shirts as part of a fund-raising campaign and I quickly bought one, not so much to contribute to charity but more to admire his good looks at a closer range! Later, a friend whispered to me that he was a gay and that he was HIV positive. I told myself too then, there wasn’t much to worry about the AIDS virus. The virus was, after all, mainly confined to the gays! Again I was wrong.

Then one day, during lunch break at an AIDS related seminar I was having lunch with some of the seminar participants. The chair next to me was empty. As we were eating, a pretty young girl sat on that chair and had lunch with us. She was rather quiet. I started talking to her and encouraged her to take more food. She spoke very little and ate very little too. Then she left. After lunch, we continued with the Seminar. We were told that a female PLWHA (person living with HIV/AIDS) would come on stage to share to share her story.

I looked at that young woman as she came on stage. I looked again. She seemed familiar. Then I remembered…. She was that young women who had sat next to me during lunch break! We sat so very close and I had shook her hands. I was very apprehensive. This was the first time that I had ate together with a PLWHA and shook her hands. I knew the facts about the mode of transmission of the virus but I was still very uncomfortable and afraid. I was wrong again, to feel that way.

Today, almost 17 years later and looking at the statistics which are rising year after year, the virus has spread and is continuing to spread to men, women, young people and babies. It is not who you are, it is what you do, that will determine if you are likely or unlikely to get the virus. Staying away from risk-taking behaviours is one of the surest ways to keep the virus away.

Up to today, I have many PLWHA as friends. I no longer feel anxious sitting and eating with them. I know that there is still a lot of discrimination and stigma against PLWHAs. Once people come to know that they are positive, it is a tough battle for them. Their families and friends can abandon them. Their neighbours may also shun them and their families. They can lose their jobs. People can also hurt them, hurling remarks like, ”Serve you right, you are paying for your sins”. Is that a fair remark? Do we actually know the circumstances that led to the transmission of the virus? Even if we do and a person had made a mistake, do we need to condemn that person, sort of give him/her a life sentence?

PLWHAs are also like us. They are also human beings. They want to live life with dignity and to the fullest too.

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet 3 PLWHA at a Seminar. They shared their stories. One of them, whom I refer to as “X” , was neglected by her parents, and did not complete her secondary education. She worked as a housekeeper in a hotel and soon was lured by the promise of a job that will bring good money. Being poor she was attracted to it. She became a GRO (Guest Relation Officer). She met a nice guy and they had plans to marry. But he married someone else. She was broken-hearted. She then became a sex worker, and one day she was tested HIV- positive and attempted suicide twice but failed. She then told herself she had a reason to stay alive. Today she speaks openly about her experiences, hoping that in the process people will understand PLWHA better and will not stigmatize them.

The other two PLWHA had got the HIV virus from their husbands. One of them had two children, aged 5 years and another 8 months. As I look at the children, I begin to wonder what the future will be for them. When they go to school will their classmates and other children stay away from them? Will they live a life the way we are given the opportunity to live? They are normal people just like you and me.

Remember stigma “kills”. Let us be more sensitive to the PLWHA. They can be anybody and from all walks of life. Let us give them all the support we can. The least that we can do is not to discriminate and stigmatize them. That alone is a great deed.

Piaro Kaur,
Head,Programme Services

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