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Why I became an HIV and AIDS activist

This post was written by Imo Chinasa Ude – ONE Champion, Nigeria

Someone once said to me, ‘Chinasa: why do you always exude this strong, nothing gets to me attitude, but are fragile when defending something you believe in? You in most cases appear even more concerned than the affected person?’

This is my story. I come from a society where people don’t expose their true feelings. It doesn’t matter what happens inside, you are expected to suck it up and deal with it. An outsider is not supposed to know. This is because our traditional and societal beliefs. No one wants shame or scandal brought upon their family. No one wants to be given a name tag and trust me, society can be very cruel when it comes to labeling people.

I remember in 1996, I was still in primary school in the village, a young lady returned home one day very sick and died shortly after her return. A day after her burial, the whole community and leaders including women, who I assumed to be more compassionate than men, went early in the morning to ostracize the late woman’s entire family and banished them from ever returning to the village. In their defense, the young lady led a scandalous life, and got a disease that is seen as a taboo, so his family and anyone related to her could not be allowed to stay with the community.

Then I was too young to understand the implication of stigmatization, as it was the first time I experienced such cruelty. A few years later though, my cousin also got infected with HIV. He was a young man, tall, and handsome, at the prime of his youth. He had just graduated from the university and settling down comfortably. Then suddenly in the middle of broad day light he committed suicide, by jumping from a three story building, and died on the spot.

Noone understood why a fine young man at the prime of his youth decide to take his own life? What could have been so frustrating to make him give up so easily?

An investigation revealed that he had tested positive for HIV. He couldn’t bear the shame. Society would have digested him and become cruel to our family. The doctors were of no help either as there was no cure in sight. He gave up so easily because he didn’t have the courage to face it all. I can tell you that his mother never recovered from that shock, none of us have. But the twist of fate to is that his girlfriend still lives with HIV but is still alive, has married and even has a family.

This made me realized that most times a person’s survival depends on not just medical treatment but having correct and timely information. It’s about building the right mindset and attitude that will boost the zeal to hang on. It’s about having a friendly shoulder to lean on and about showing compassion. From then on, I decided to be part of the solution in any situation I face.

These experiences shaped my views on life and society. It is not right that fear of what society might do can complicate a health condition. It is not okay for people to take their own lives because of fear of societal stigma. It’s still not okay to see the psychological, emotional and physical trauma families go through just because a family member is suffering/suffered from any viral disease. For me it is unacceptable to see these things and remain silent.

As soon as I got into the higher learning institutions, I joined lots of social justice/humanitarian outreaches in my institution. I joined the Rotary (Rotaract) club and the drug and HIV free club. I volunteered with various HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns and other health interventions. I became a peer educator for HIV reproductive health care especially in the rural communities.

I did all these because I know that when people are well equipped with the right information; when you teach a young girl/boy all he/she needs to know about HIV/AIDS and its prevention and reproductive health care; when you coach a young boy that it is unacceptably wrong to abuse a girl no matter what the circumstances; when you give voice to the voiceless and when you mobilize and enlighten the youths towards building positive attitudes and lifestyle, it leaves a lasting impact in their life choices.

After completing university, a friend (Denise Akagha) and I co-founded JustCare Initiative, a non-profit organisation that aims to reduce stigma and discrimination associated with HIV and other infectious diseases in Nigeria. It is the first step towards righting a lot of wrong in the society.

As the world is meeting in Durban of the International AIDS Conference, I want to celebrate every person who has gone the extra mile in the fight against stigma. You can add your voice to the fight against AIDS by urging governments to invest more in the Global Fund. 

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