Overcoming Stigma to Live a Normal Healthy Life
When Esther Wesonga was diagnosed with HIV in 2006, she felt like her world had come crashing down. Before she knew her status, her ex-husband had been dealing with frequent illness and upon visiting the hospital, was diagnosed with TB. The doctor advised him to take an HIV test, which he was found positive, and Esther his wife, she too was tested and found to be HIV positive. “I could not believe that I was infected and went into denial which made me refuse to be enrolled for care and treatment,” says Esther. However, she went back to the same hospital after a month and was initiated on Antiretroviral (ART).
“When my neighbours and friends learnt about my status, they distanced themselves from me and even stigmatized me,” she recollects. In 2010, she split from her husband due to unfaithfulness and moved to Busia with her two children. Her condition became worse while in Busia and it was then she started visiting a local clinic to collect ARVs. The ugly face of stigmatization did not hesitate to show once again when the community members learnt of her HIV status. The stigmatization got worse to the point she stopped adhering to drugs and later defaulted from care and treatment, which led to her viral load increasing from Low Detectable Level (LDL) to 1450 CP/ml.
At that time, ADS-W Peer Educator Mr Chrispinus Mang’eni, who works with the Fisherfolk Project, met Esther in his normal peer education sessions and that is when Esther disclosed her HIV status and why she defaulted to him. She was counselled and immediately linked to Buburi Ushindi Support Group (people living with HIV) which was started by ADS-W and this was her turning point. In the group, she was trained on Positive Health Dignity Prevention (PHDP) 13 messages, which included how to deal with stigma, adherence, disclosure and nutrition among others. They were also trained on social economic activities to improve their livelihoods and were directly linked to healthcare workers who reminded them to take their drugs on time. She also attended an exchange visit organized by ADS-W in Bungoma County and interacted with different people living with HIV who were very encouraging.
After a few months of support group meetings and counselling sessions with the ADS-W peer educator, Esther went back to care and treatment, disclosed her HIV status to her family and friends and established a kitchen garden to supplement her nutrition status. She also started participating in table banking where she saves and borrows money to pay her children’s school fees and established a small business.
In 2013, Esther met her current husband and immediately disclosed her HIV status to him. They went for testing together and the husband’s status was negative but he was distressed and in denial of Esther’s status. The peer educator intervened and the two received professional counselling as a discordant couple, follow-ups were made finally leading to acceptance and marriage. They have been living together for 8 years and have been blessed with 2 children who are HIV-negative.
“I talk openly about my HIV status and help those being stigmatized in the community by counselling them. Right now, my viral load is suppressed which makes me live a normal healthy life,” says Esther. Due to her willingness and support from her partner, she now works as a community resource person under ADS-W where she trains people on positive living.
This year alone, the Fisher Folk Project has reached out to 9,927 people with HIV-related messages and 35 social support groups have been formed with a membership of approximately 12-25 people in each group.