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Malaysia

Raising HIV awareness one conversation at a time

The story of 44-year-old Sami and his wife Ama (not their real names) is one that is becoming increasingly common in their low-cost housing community and surrounding neighborhoods in the northern Malaysian state of Kedah. First came drug addiction, then HIV, a double burden that Sami and his family have borne for more than 13 years. Sami’s infection was devastating for his wife, who was already caring for their three children, including one with mental disabilities. After years of counselling and support, she has managed to come to uneasy terms with the illness. “We women have to take care of our husbands, and ourselves,” she says. “We must also be aware and make sure our husbands don’t go out and start taking drugs, because that’s where it all starts.”

In their neighborhood, inhabited primarily by factory workers and the unemployed, drug use is widespread and cases of HIV infection are on the rise. Needle sharing remains the most common mode of transmitting HIV in Malaysia, but more and more people are becoming infected through sex, especially housewives. According to the Ministry of Health, the number of new infections in women has risen nearly fourfold in the last decade.

The Ministry of Health’s Kedah Health Department and UNICEF are working to ensure that women from lower income groups know how to protect themselves and their children from HIV. Through a local NGO, Prostanita, they support a pilot programme that enables women to learn from other women about life skills and health issues. Ama is an active participant in this peer-to-peer programme. Prostanita offers vocational training in cooking and craft-making followed by group discussions and question-and-answer sessions about HIV and AIDS. Dr. Meera Koay president of Prostanita, explains what the organization does. “We want to empower them [the women] so that they will be able to make wise decisions, say, for instance, on the use of safe sex, on the usage of condoms. If they are empowered, they are better informed, better able to protect themselves, protect their family, teach their family, teach other women.”

Outside the Prostanita meeting hall, young community activists like 19-year-old Kogilavani Gunasegar help bring the organization’s messages even closer to home. In addition to helping her mother prepare South Indian specialities in their snack stall on the parking lot, Kogilavani spends her time talking to her friends and colleagues about HIV, AIDS and other risks they may face. Kogilavani believes that it is important for young women to understand the dangers around them and to make smart choices about which people they allow to influence their lives. “We cannot mix with people who have bad intentions. If I think my friends are mixing with the bad crowd, I will advise them not to. I tell them that we must be responsible for our own welfare. We must look after ourselves. We cannot follow others just because they want to mix with us,” she says.

With the efforts of Kogilavani and other women across Kedah, Prostanita aims to help some 20,000 women and as many as 100,000 children and young people, one conversation at a time.