By Chioma Obinna
Despite the fact that Human Immune-Deficiency Syndrome, HIV, has been demystified by the activities of the human rights institutions, groups and donor agencies, stigma against people living with HIV/AIDS has continued unabated, particularly when women are involved.
Ordinarily, marriage is ‘for better for worse’. But how true is this today? This is the pertinent question many women such as Tolu Ade, a mother of three, and many others have continued to seek an answer to.
“Living with HIV for 13 years has taught me a better lesson in life,” Tolu told Sunday Vanguard.
The joy of Tolu, 33, and her former husband knew no bounds when a laboratory test revealed she was pregnant for the first time. They were eager to have their first offspring. They had plans to be together until death put them asunder.
For Tolu, her love for her husband was so much that she could sacrifice her life for him. But little did she know that their dreams would be short-lived seven months into the pregnancy.
Their woes started when she went for antenatal and a laboratory tes showed she was HIV positive.
“My world shattered. I lived in denial for months. I wondered why I must be positive even when I am not promiscuous”, she narrated.
“I tested HIV positive in 2005 when I was seven months pregnant. I never knew the doctor was running an HIV test on me.
“But after the test, the doctor did not disclose the result of the test but he referred me to the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research, NIMR, Yaba for confirmation.
“I went to NIMR and I paid N1, 700 for the test. After the test, a counsellor there called me into a room and told me I was positive. My world came crashing.”
According to her, the moment the news was broken to her, the popular Yaba market was where she found herself, roaming around the market.
“I did not get myself the moment I left NIMR. I found myself in the market. I was looking left and right and wondering why everybody in the market was negative and I was positive”, Tolu said.
“How can it be only me? That was the question ringing bell in my ears that day. It is not possible, I told myself”.
From NIMR, she was referred to Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, LASUTH, Ikeja.
On getting to LASUTH, Tolu was told that her baby would be delivered through Caesarean Section, CS, because it could not be done in the normal way.
According to the doctors at LASUTH, pregnant women living with HIV are not allowed to deliver through the birth canal.
The moment the news was broken to her, she became confused.
“We had a heated argument over the issue. I was told it was to protect my baby from being infected.”
As Tolu refused vehemently not to have CS under any condition, what happened next was a miracle.
“My baby was born in the normal way. The day the baby came; they were busy preparing me for CS when I gave birth normally.
“Everything went well. It was miraculous. My baby was introduced to a drug for six weeks after which she was tested for HIV and she came out negative.
“She is still negative to date. Thank God my baby is negative”.
Living in denial
Still didn’t believe in the results from the two big hospitals, Tolu, on three different occasions, sneaked into different laboratory centres for confirmation of her HIV status.
“Till date, I am still wondering how I got infected. I was married. I went to different places but, unfortunately, all of them came out positive.
“I became worried but still refused to take Anti-Retroviral, ARVs, drugs until a doctor at LASUTH took time to counsel me.
“I went back to NIMR to begin treatment. Since then, I have been on treatment. I am well and achieving my goals.
“Life was not easy for me initially because I cannot imagine taking drugs for life. I told myself it was impossible, but gradually I began to develop a positive attitude towards treatment.”
Tolu could not comprehend the fact that she was living with HIV.
“I sometimes asked myself, are you going to take drugs for life? How long will you do this? For a sickness that has no cure? I told myself it was not possible.
“I continued nursing my baby and taking her to the clinic for checkups.”
Break up with first husband
Just like hundreds of women who were stigmatised by their husbands, Tolu’s husband abandoned her.
Her husband ran away from the house with the thought that she may infect him. He discontinued the marriage.
“I lost my first husband because of my HIV status. He told me he could not live with my status.”
Tolu’s husband packed out of their house the moment he realised his wife was HIV positive.
“I was shattered but I needed to pick up the pieces of life with pregnancy getting closer to delivery.
Why she kept her status a secret
“I decided to keep my condition a secret. If my husband could react this way, what will happen to me with a larger society?
“Stigma and discrimination almost stopped me from taking drugs because people that know you may see you in hospital.
“I heard stories of how families separate even plates and some sleep outside because of their status.
“I was scared I may suffer the same fate, so I kept it between my brother and I. Even my parents do not know my status”.
She said they could not disclose her status to even their children to avoid stigma.
“People believe that if you are positive, you will die and this has led many people with HIV to commit suicide due to stigma and discrimination.
“We have sicknesses that are even deadlier than HIV. We have diabetes, hepatitis B. The problem is that many people see HIV as a bigger problem.
“Some families also contribute to the death of some people living with HIV. Some go as far as separating plates, spoons and everything in the house, which is not right.
“How about tuberculosis, is not worse than HIV? To me, HIV is just like malaria. All you need to do is to take your drugs and live your normal life.
“My brother is still bothered about me that I may die one day. But I usually tell him that I will not die but live to declare the works of the Lord because I know the years I signed with God that I am going to live.
“People that are not positive also die. Whether you are positive or not you will die one day. HIV will not kill me. I will live my normal life”.
Just like the saying, “the downfall of a man is not the end of his life”, fate gave Tolu an opportunity to be married again. This time to a man who understands her condition and loves her with his whole heart.
“Today, I am happily remarried. My former husband asked me to leave. I got married again after I tested positive.
“He understands me. His family members are not aware of it like my family.
I have three boys who are negative. I am taking my drugs and living my normal life.
“My husband is still negative. Being positive is not the end of life and it cannot stop you from achieving your goals in life.
“In the past, every time I will be crying asking myself why I am HIV positive.
“But now I am happy that I am positive because where I have gotten in life, somebody that is not positive cannot even get there.
“I am proud I am positive and living a normal life.
“HIV is not written on the forehead. It is not the end of the world. We have many people who have been on drugs for over 30 years and they are still on the earth achieving their dreams and goals.
“If you take your drugs, you will live a normal life. For 13 years I have been on drugs. I am achieving my goals.
“I have no challenge getting my drugs. In Lagos State, even primary health centres have drugs”.
She disclosed that the only challenge facing people living with HIV in Lagos was the challenge at their workplaces.
“Most people who have HIV sometimes face serious challenges in their working places.
“We have a lot of people who have lost their jobs. I don’t know how government will assist them because many have either missed their drugs or lost their jobs because they cannot continue to take excuses from work.”
Tolu appealed to the federal and state governments to make alternative arrangement for working-class persons living with HIV in terms of dispatching their drugs.
“Some can longer leave their places of work every time to collect drugs for fear of losing their jobs while some shy away from being seen in hospital by a known face.”
She advised Nigerians to go for early screening to determine whether or not they are HIV positive.