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Outcasts rescued from lives of isolation

© UNICEF/BANA2013-00581/Ahsan Khan
A nine-year-old sits on her mother's lap at Ashar Alo in Mohammadpur, Dhaka. Both the mother and child are living with are HIV positive.

By Raffat Binte Rashid

Dhaka, 13 March, 2014: Monzila Das, 26, is HIV positive. She lives with her in-laws on the outskirts of Dhaka.

Because of her condition she was initially ostracised by her husband’s family, even though she contracted the illness through him.

Such was the extent of her isolation that at one point she had her own dining area in the family’s home and had to eat behind a wooden door.

She had to stretch out her plate from behind the door to receive food. Her mother-in-law would shovel a few morsels on her plate and thrust it her way while she served the other family members in a separate area.

She seemed to think that even by touching Monzila’s plate she would become infected with the same illness as her daughter-in-law.

“Being HIV positive was like double jeopardy for me. They did not care that I was infected by their son, my husband,” Monzila laments.

“My infant child was taken away from me; I was not allowed to do household chores. I was barred from sitting with my family. My life was nothing less than hell.”

But Monzila’s life changed when a counsellor from Ashar Alo Society, an organisation of people living with HIV, came to her neighbourhood to offer help.

Her husband received treatment from them and his health started to improve.

“Now we are living in our own separate house and doing well with my husband’s small income as an ironsmith,” Monzila says.

Lives changed

Meela Akter is a strong, confident woman. She too is HIV positive and she too has had to overcome challenging obstacles to restore her life.
 She can now begin to dream of a better future.

“My husband was a migrant worker in a foreign country, I had a son and a shop of my own, I lived with my in-laws and things were going fine until January 2009 when my husband abruptly returned home with the illness,” she said.

© UNICEF/BANA2013-00483/Ahsan Khan
A woman affected by HIV/AIDS participates in a monthly group session at Ashar Alo in Mohammadpur. She is often asked to stay away from her child by member of her own family members, as they do not understand her condition.

“He did not tell me why he came back but I could see that he frequently became sick with fever, jaundice and diarrhoea.

“He said he had diabetes for which he was ill. We took him to the doctor where he was diagnosed with AIDS.

“I was nine months pregnant at that time with my daughter and my husband passed away shortly afterwards,” says Meela

No sooner was he dead than her brother-in-law asked her to be checked by doctors to see if she had been infected.

It was then that her horror story began.

“When I tested positive they threw me out of my own house, took away my son, my shop and all my savings. It all happened almost at once,” she says.

“I gave birth to my daughter. I was given medicine for reducing the risk of HIV transmission to my baby.

“She tested negative at 18-month. My mother took me in and gave us shelter.”

With the help of a non-government organization (NGO) working for HIV positive women, she now has a job and has regained her self-respect and is part of her family.

There are many other women with stories similar to that of Monzila and Neela. Some were infected by their migrant worker husbands and some got infected from blood transfusions.

Fear and stigmatisation

“In Bangladesh, like many countries, discrimination against people with HIV is not uncommon as people infected with HIV are often unfairly judged by the society including by health service providers” says Dr M Ziya Uddin, HIV/AIDS Specialist, UNICEF Bangladesh.

In partnership with UNICEF, a local NGO is working to empower HIV positive women including those who are pregnant to be economically independent and access information and services required for HIV treatment, care and support including prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

The NGO also provides infected women with a platform to receive counselling on anti-retroviral drugs and human rights and gender issues.

So while much effort to address discrimination faced by people living with HIV are on-going, much more efforts still needs to be done.

*As per UNICEF editorial policy, original names have been changed to ensure security of the women living with HIV.



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