By Rajat Madhok
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, 3 October 2012 – Sarath* had been living and working abroad. Until a few years ago, he had also been a successful track and field athlete, competing in 400-metre races and the triple jump. Then he contracted HIV from a sexual partner.
|UNICEF correspondent Rajat Madhok reports on advocates living with HIV and cricketers who are raising awareness about HIV in Sri Lanka and other countries. Watch in RealPlayer|
At first, he had no idea what HIV was. By the time he realized what had happened, his employer had fired him and asked him to leave the country within 48 hours. Sarath took the next flight home to Sri Lanka.
Home to face stigma
It took Sarath months to come to terms with the reality of being HIV-positive. It took another few years before he could confide in his loved ones. While his sister and mother stood by him, his friends shunned him almost immediately.
Every day, across the world, HIV infects about 2,500 young people between the ages of 15 and 24. Stigma against people living with HIV is still rife in many countries. Reducing discrimination is therefore critical, as is increasing awareness among and about groups at high risk of infection.
|© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2012/Madhok|
|Sarath (name changed) is living with HIV. A few years ago, he dreamed of a career as a track and field athlete, but destiny had other plans. He is now a Think Wise campaign volunteer, committed to raising awareness about HIV.|
Having faced stigma and discrimination associated with being HIV-positive, Sarath decided to fight the disease by doing what he could to spread awareness and end the stigma.
“One day, I just decided to face reality and accept this. Then I wanted to help others who were living with HIV, as I felt many of them were being discriminated against and suffering as a result of it. I saw society not accepting them. And so I wanted to advocate on behalf of them. I felt I could make a difference,” he says.
Bringing an anti-stigma message on the road
Recently, Sarath traveled across the length and breadth of Sri Lanka by bus with a group of other people living with HIV to raise awareness about HIV and about how people can keep themselves safe. The team used everything from posters to kites to street theatre to get their message across.
|© UNICEF Video|
|The Think Wise campaign is a joint effort among the International Cricket Council, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS and UNICEF. Cricket stars from across Africa, Asia and the Caribbean come together to tackle discrimination and to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS.|
The road show was part of the Think Wise campaign, a joint effort among the International Cricket Council, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS and UNICEF. The campaign features cricket stars from across Africa, Asia and the Caribbean who leverage their popularity and make people rally under such slogans as – ‘Get the facts – protect yourself’ and ‘Think wise. Don’t stigmatize.’
As part of this campaign, cricketers reach out to children and youth during interactive sessions at big tournaments where both HIV awareness and cricketing tips are on the programme.
“Sport plays a major role in building a nation, and obviously with these kinds of events being so huge, it can only bring a lot of attention to a lot of people, and we are certainly grateful to be part of it – and hopefully we can create some sort of a difference within our world and our countries,” says South African cricketer JP Duminy.
|© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2012/Madhok|
|During a street theatre performance, part of the Think Wise campaign, Sarath plays the part of a person living with HIV telling others not to shun him.|
Breaking the silence that helps spread HIV
UNICEF Representative in Sri Lanka Reza Hossaini discusses the importance of raising awareness: “Sarath is not alone in this journey. Tens of thousands of young people get the fear of stigma and discrimination. They do not go for testing, even though they know that they have had a risky behaviour. They do not seek medical help and psychosocial support when they know they are HIV-positive, and this silence actually helps in silently spreading the virus. We strongly believe that, through the power of cricket, we can motivate and we can encourage the young people to speak out to seek help when they need and increase the public awareness in general.”
Sarath is on antiretroviral therapy, and he has been leading a healthy life. Proper treatment and care will ensure he remains healthy and can carry on fighting against the virus that has changed the course of his life. He hopes to make a difference in the lives of those who either don’t know about HIV or are too afraid to ask.
Sometimes, he slips into a reverie, wishing that he could still be running on the field and not watching from the sidelines. Nevertheless, his resolve to help and protect those who suffer from HIV only grows stronger.
*Name has been changed to protect his identity.