|© UNICEF video|
|Drug users living with HIV, and their children, are shunned and dismissed in Malaysia and many other societies around the world.|
By Steve Nettleton
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, 16 April 2007 – Injecting drug users are overwhelmingly the largest contributor to the spread of HIV and AIDS in Malaysia. And in this country, as in many other societies around the world, they bear a double stigma.
Dismissed by society as addicts or criminals, drug users and their children are again shunned because of HIV, often by their own families. With few options for assistance, they are left to fight their illness alone.
Shah, a former drug user who now leads an effort to reach out to drug addicts, believes it’s time for this to change. He volunteers at IKHLAS, a community drop-in centre and outreach programme for homeless drug users in the capital, Kuala Lumpur. The centre is part of a government harm-reduction programme that receives support from UNICEF.
Shah worries that the more society abandons HIV-infected addicts, the heavier a toll it will take on children.
“I feel that children suffer the most in the equation of HIV/AIDS and drugs,” he said. “They see their parents suffer and then die. It is important for us to support the children by supporting their parents, so that children can grow up in the presence of their mothers and fathers and have a normal childhood.”
|Shah (right), a recovering drug user himself, counsels a homeless addict at an outreach centre in Kuala Lumpur.|
A family coping with HIV
The experience of Suhaimi – a Malaysian single father living with HIV – illustrates Shah’s point.
Recently, Suhaimi pumped air into a tire while his son Rosyam, 12, tightened the bicycle wheel in place with a wrench. After a pinch to ensure the pressure, he nodded to Rosyam to give it a try. The boy lifted the bicycle upright, climbed onto the seat and pedalled it in circles, watched by his stepsister and two stepbrothers.
They were all members of a family joined by HIV and coping with a recent tragedy. Suhaimi’s HIV-positive wife, Ina, had died of cancer only a few weeks before, leaving him as the sole parent to his biological son and Ina’s three children, including one living with HIV.
“I am the father. I am the mother,” said Suhaimi. “It’s not easy to do this. In the morning, I need to prepare their breakfast, then I need to go to work. I am worried particularly for my daughter.”
Destructive drug habit
Ina was Suhaimi’s second wife; they met in 2004. He learned of his HIV-positive status only after the death of his first wife in 2002.
|A family brought together by HIV tries to cope with tragedy.|
At the time, Suhaimi was hooked on heroin. He had most likely contracted the AIDS virus through injecting with shared needles. Long before his first wife died, his drug habit was destroying his family.
“When I was taking drugs, we were a family but it was incomplete,” he recalled. “The love wasn’t there. I didn’t carry out my responsibilities for my child’s basic needs. Can you imagine, my son is sitting in front of me and in front of my son I’m shooting drugs?”
Positive environment for children
Suhaimi hopes his difficult experience can help others in similar circumstances. He now works for Positive Living, a network for people living with HIV and AIDS in Malaysia.
It was here that he met Ina, a single mother struggling with her illness. She had been rejected by her extended family and had no place to stay. Suhaimi says Ina wanted desperately for her children to grow up in a positive family environment. Despite her absence, it is a wish he intends to fulfil.
“I’m not expecting huge things from my children,” he said. “My wish is that they become useful. Don’t become like me. I want to give them a good education, so they don’t have a wasted life like mine. You don’t have to be rich. The most important thing is to have a happy family.”
Names have been changed to protect the identities of those profiled in this story.