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HIV/AIDS: Stigma still a major challenge in Benue

“Even my sisters at home warned me to stop sharing things with them. I was given my cup and plates and I dare not touch…

“Even my sisters at home warned me to stop sharing things with them. I was given my cup and plates and I dare not touch what others use.”

That story shared by Hadiza Okewu (not real name), set emotions loose as it reflected the experiences of stigmatisation/discrimination suffered by lots of People Living Positively With HIV/AIDS in Benue State.

Okewu a minor, who was born with the condition, represents the untold difficulties many people living positively go through as some of them also narrated during a recent ‘Stigma Clinic’ organised by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) in Makurdi.

Another patient said: “The hospital staff who attended to me did not disclose my status to me but went about telling people that I was positive. I confronted them and once it was revealed to me I accepted my condition and today, in my community, people come to me for help.”

Apart from these people who opened up to share their challenges, there are many other tales of stigmatisation and violations of rights which undermine the well-being of those living positively with the HIV virus that are not reported to appropriate quarters.

Sometimes, even reported cases are thwarted in the course of seeking legal redress while some of those seeking justice, along the line, bow to pressure and abandon their pursuit.

The Benue State Coordinator of People Living With HIV (PLWHIV), Ali Baba, regretted that stigma and discrimination have become very difficult to contend with despite the law put in place by the state government to mitigate against the unhealthy acts.

“We know the law has been passed but the stigma has not gone away. There is no implementation of the law in Nigeria. Even when the laws are there, Nigerians want to circumvent them; to see how to bypass the laws. The law is there but we haven’t gotten enough conviction.

“Only few are administered while others are not. The challenge is that while the law is there, implementation is not anything to write home about.  We are trying to see how to change this narrative. The stigmatisation is in different forms such as state, community and societal stigma,” he said.

He said some people who are stigmatised are afraid to take up the case because of threat from their family, community and so on. “Even if they take up the case, along the line, they back out. For instance, there is a case at one of the Federal Government Girls colleges in the state; a student was not allowed to stay in the hostel because of her status which was declared to the school authority by the parents.

“The school authority refused to even admit the child but after much persuasion from different quarters, the student was given an option to reside outside the hostel.

“The disclosure, which now became the offence of the parents, was meant for the school authority to be aware of the student’s health status so as to ensure the child adheres to drugs regulation or other requirements, only for the authority to say they cannot accept the child.

“The matter was reported to us, we wanted to take up the matter but along the line, we didn’t know why the parents backed off,” he narrated.

Baba also mentioned another case which the association took to the police but along the line, the matter just fizzled out. He recalled case in which a woman reported that her husband was maltreating her because she was positive.

According to him, the husband of the woman and their two children were not positive, adding that the man accepted the children but did not want the wife any longer.

The PLWHIV coordinator said, “the children were negative because they passed through the PMCT.”

He therefore stressed the need for government agencies such as the Ministry of Justice and the police among others to enforce the law by prosecuting cases of stigmatisation.

“These cases are frustrated through these channels. By the time, you don’t have money to continue with a case or you are told come today, come tomorrow, you will be frustrated. Then the case dies naturally.

‘We are powerless as far as these cases are concerned. Government has the responsibility to enforce the law. The government had signed the bill into law and its agencies have the powers to prosecute.”

No doubt, stigmatisation remains a major challenge faced by people living positively with HIV/AIDS, especially among rural dwellers in Benue State who appeared uneducated about the scourge.

A Lawyers Alert in the state, Barr, Mom Lazarus, emphasised the reality that many people living with the scourge still suffer one form of discrimination or the other, at work place or outside work place, on their matrimonial beds, hospitals (caregivers) and self stigmatisation even though the state domesticated a law to mitigate against stigma five years ago.

He cited the case of an employee which his organisation handled to the extent that the client successfully got justice in court after his employers without his (employee) consent conducted HIV test on him and terminated his appointment when he was found to be positive.

“We have at least three cases now; one denied admission to school, another complained of indiscriminate charges in the hospital while the other had a HIV test conducted on him without his consent,” he noted.

Barr Lazarus however thinks that there is room for improvement as according to him, some level of success had already been attained in the state following awareness creation carried out by civil society organisations as well as the Benue State Agency for Control of AIDS (BENSACA).

He added that, “stigmatisation in terms of physical attacks and name-calling have reduced in the state following awareness creation.”

Our correspondent recalled that at the Benue State AIDS Programme Coordinator, Dr Ugboji John, had at the AHF Stigma Clinic, said that the major problem in the fight against HIV/AIDS was stigma and that the moment it was eradicated, the pandemic would have been brought under control.

Also, the Senior Regional Medical Manager of AHF in the State Office, Dr Greg Abiaziem, told participants at the clinic that stigma remained the greatest driving force inhibiting the control of the AIDS pandemic.

He stressed the need for stakeholders to join hands toward eradicating stigmatisation even as he commended the Benue State government for providing AHF with the enabling environment to operate in the state.

Benue State Coordinator of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Barr. Tyoyer Joshua, encouraged those affected or infected with HIV/AIDS to speak out as there is already a law in place against discrimination to fight their case.

Tyoyer took participants through the Anti – Discrimination Act, 2014,  warning that there are penalties for individual and institutional discrimination as well as disclosure of information without consent.

On his part, an AHF-Nigeria Advocacy/Marketing Manager, Steve Aborisade, maintained that it was time stakeholders rallied together to find a lasting solution to the twin challenges of stigma and discrimination which individuals face due to their HIV positive status.

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