December 1, every year is designated the World AIDS Day. In 2020, with the emergence of a new virus, people living with HIV in Lagos, lament they are still being discriminated against, despite a law prohibiting this, as our correspondents in Lagos report.
Sitting in a roundtable with People Living with HIV, what readily came to mind was the old jingle advising against discriminating and stigmatizing them.
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“They are just like you and me, they deserve your empathy. Give them a chance. They are part of society,” read the jingle played repeatedly at the peak of the campaign against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in the country.
Despite the campaign, people living with HIV still contend with unmitigated discrimination and stigmatization the moment their status becomes known. In some instances, they were ostracised by family and relatives.
As the world marked the World AIDS Day on December 1, relevant parties have expressed concerns over the high prevalence of HIV cases in Nigeria with an estimated 1.8m people living with the virus, according to data by the National Agency for the Control of Aids (NACA).
In 2019, 45, 000 persons living with the virus died, according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).
This is an indication that HIV/AIDS remains a major public health concern in Nigeria. More worrisome is the discrimination that those living with HIV continue to suffer.
At a training programme organized by Journalists Against Aids (JAAIDS), people living with HIV said the discrimination they suffer has compounded their situation.
A participant at the session, who only identified herself as Bunmi, said, for her and the others living with HIV who were on the panel, stigmatization remains a major concern. She recalled being turned down from a job at a restaurant in Lagos because she revealed her status.
“I was desperately looking for jobs at that time because I have my four children to cater for. I applied to this popular restaurant. I was invited for an interview, went through the process, which I scaled through. I was so certain that I would get the job.
“But there, one of the requirements for their new employees is to go and do a comprehensive medical check, which the employees would pay for. They have a particular hospital where they direct people who they want to employ to but you would be the ones to pay for the medical examination.
“So I was referred to the hospital and before the test was carried out on me, I confessed to the doctor at the hospital that I have HIV, I hope they would still employ me because I’m using the last money on me to pay for this test. I had N4,000 on me at that time. I said let me just ask the doctor before I spent it.
“But the Doctor said, ‘My sister, don’t let me deceive you, I am not sure they would consider you for the job.’ True to what the Doctor said, she stated that she did not hear from them anymore.
Her experience underscores the discrimination and stigma of people living with HIV face on a daily basis despite the Anti-Discrimination Bill, which criminalizes the stigma of PLWHA.
According to Adeola Ajetunmobi, another PLWHA, people prefer to stay with a COVID-19 patient than with someone living with HIV.
She said that getting a partner has been difficult because of her status. Her last partner dumped her when she disclosed her status.
“The discrimination and stigmatization we face are much. I opened up to my partner about my status and he left me. I also made him realize that being HIV positive does not mean I will infect him but he still dumped me. This is the challenge we face and the country is also not helping us. The anti-discrimination law is not being enforced.
“Do you know that medical practitioners are the number one people stigmatizing us? It is really crazy. We keep educating people that being HIV positive is not the end of life. My condition almost degenerated to AIDS but it was God’s grace that I survived this and I have been keeping to my treatment regimen,” said Ajetunmobi who is the Secretary, Association of Youth living with HIV.
Victoria Mba, who is the coordinator for the Association of Women Living with HIV (ASWHAN) in Lagos said that those living with HIV have been victims of constant discrimination and stigmatization.
Narrating her experience, having lived with HIV for 16 years, she recalled facing domestic abuse and that she was ostracized and stigmatized by everyone around her. But today, she said, “I am a victor and not a victim.”
“Women are more vulnerable to contracting HIV because of the biological make-up of the vagina. Some men would say a woman gave it to me and so I must share it. As a woman living with HIV, it was tough at the beginning. Again if a woman is not financially stable and she has HIV, it becomes an issue to fight stigma and discrimination,” she said.
“There is a need for more awareness. A lot of people don’t know it is possible to marry a positive person. I remarried and my husband is negative and we are living fine. As an HIV positive person, I know I have a task to use my drugs regularly as if my life depends on it.
“I don’t want women to go through what I passed through. I want to see a society where children have a right to be born negative. I want to see a drastic reduction in the number of new infections. We want to see a reduction in stigma and discrimination to the barest minimum. People should know that we are normal human beings and we are not from another planet.”
Mr Frederick Adegboye, whose case generated media outcry in 2004 when he was denied admission at the Nigeria Institute of Journalism (NIJ), said, “I got to know of my status in 2003 but I must have been infected earlier. I was close to the stage of AIDS because I emaciated greatly. AIDS is still an issue in Nigeria. COVID-19 has gained a lot of attention but we should emphasize that HIV/AIDS is still a public health concern. The rate at which people have unprotected sex is very alarming.
“There is treatment now yet people are still hiding. There are thousands of people out there who don’t know their status and this is a major issue we need to address,” he said.
The anti-discrimination bill, which was signed into law in 2015 by former President Goodluck Jonathan, protects the rights and dignity of people living with HIV.
The HIV/AIDS Anti-Discrimination Act of 2014 makes it illegal to discriminate against people based on their HIV status. It also prohibits any employer, individual or organization from requiring a person to take an HIV test as a precondition for employment or access to services.
But those living with HIV and relevant parties championing the battle for an HIV-free society say there is a lot to do to stop the discrimination while enlightenment campaign must be ramped up to achieve the objective of reducing the rate of infections to the barest minimum.