Friends For Life

One of our programs today was to meet with a support group panel called Friends For Life – the only HIV/AIDS support group in the Molepolole area (pop. of approx 60,000 people). The panel consisted of about 10 HIV positive people living openly with their status. It’s not common to disclose one’s status here and in many parts of Africa, mostly because the repercussions of doing so could involve rejection from communities, families, jobs, and friends.  To listen to people here in Botswana who have come out with their positive status was really inspirational and made a lot of us want to jump up and get to work.

Stigma eradication has become an issue that I want to focus on during my time here. Out of the 1.8 million people in Botswana, about 380,000 are HIV positive. That’s a significant percentage, yet it’s just not something some people feel comfortable acknowledging.  I think some of it has to do with the fact that the population is so sparse, and social networking is so tightly knit. So many people die from HIV/AIDS, but rarely will anyone ever say that their relative died from it. Some would rather say that he or she died of a headache. The stigma in Botswana causes much discrimination, and is a significant deterrent to getting tested, seeking counseling, or even waiting in line for life-extending medication for those already positive out of fear someone they know will see them. And because some people are afraid to know the truth, many don’t get tested and go on to infect others blindly.

And as for our role in improving the situation – we can’t just walk in and “educate.” The stigma carries false information and myths about prevention, actions that can be taken to “remove the virus” from one’s body, and the “type” of person who contracts HIV. We have to understand the intricacies of the culture to be able to apply that education in a way that will be appreciated by everyone.  The people in this panel were of all ages, socioeconomic backgrounds, and education levels. If more people were open about their status like this, then others would begin to see that HIV is not selective.

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