It is indeed a privilege and an honour to stand before you as a person living with HIV on such an auspicious occasion. I am not only a person living with HIV, but I am currently serving as coordinator of an HIV/AIDS NGO, Community Action Resource, better known as CARe. I pride myself on saying that I am one of the success stories that have come from this organisation; and it’s an honour to be able to serve the needs of who I fondly call “the community of care”, as I am deeply indebted to this organisation, for when I entered its doors I was literally a “walking dead.”
Since our relocation to our new home in September this year, we have seen a steady increase of newly diagnosed persons accessing our services. Our support group, for example, grew from a number of five to twenty in the space of three months. But, with this success, comes the grim face of reality. Realities of people newly diagnosed which reveal patterns of social and economic inequity. One member lost her job because her workers discovered that she was HIV-positive. Her story indicates that the discrimination began within the health care system – one of the nurses revealed her status to a co-worker, who had come to see her (the member) at the hospital for a totally unrelated illness. The nurse, on seeing the co-worker giving the member a casual goodbye kiss, told the co-worker that she should not have done something like that because the patient has AIDS. The co-worker told the other workers at the member’s workplace, who began to shun her, and in one instance one staff member refused to drink from the same cup as the member did. One day the member called in sick, and the boss called her half-an-hour later letting her know that she was no longer needed. Other members have no steady means of income. Some are unable to have at least one meal a day, much less to ensure that it’s a nutritious one. These issues impact on the individual ability to adhere to their anti-retovirals, as some require that they be taken with a meal.
At CARe, we have made a conscious decision to not play the victim role, but we see ourselves as a community that seeks to deepen its relationships with key stakeholders in order to ensure greater access and decrease levels of economic and social and gender inequity. We are not just a support group, but one that seeks to empower people living with HIV who can demonstrate leadership at any and at all levels of society. It cannot be underscored the value of this work and the need for it to be sustained and supported.
Indeed we are becoming more intuitive and responsive to the society we live in. We understand that we are all in this together – regardless of race, age, class, gender, and sexual identity.
I am also a member of another community. A community that for far too long have been misunderstood, judged, stifled, or to put it simply: oppressed. A community that, despite its oppression, has managed to contribute to the rich tapestry of a nation’s identity through art, culture, media, and fashion. A community that diligently works in all sectors of labour, be it industry or commerce. A community oppressed by ignorance and religious bigotry. A community labelled outlaws who have no “equal opportunity” in a nation that has written in its national anthem “Here every creed and race find an equal place.”
I speak of those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender. Our archaic laws have driven the lifestyle and culture of these groups underground, forcing many to engage in risky sexual practices, forcing others to lead double lives. Our work in HIV prevention has to move beyond short-term interventions and condom distribution. It has to deal with issues of internalised stigma and shame that one feels living a lifestyle that is “different.” It requires a reengineering, a deeper understanding of the many sub-cultures that constitute these marginalised groups. It demands a stronger partnering with members of civil society who engage meaningfully with these communities; and a clear demonstration of leadership from the powers that govern us.
In closing, I am not limited by my HIV status or my sexual identity, nor should i be judged by it. I am first and foremost a citizen of this beloved country, one who is passionate about equality, justice, community and country. I long for the day when I can truly believe in those words “here every creed and race find an equal place.” I thank you.
Soomarie shared the panel with Minister of State in the Office of the Prime Hon. Rodger Samuel