The First Woman to Un-Veil
Along with her family, she was evicted from a rented flat by her landlord. Her daughters lost all friends at school and even the teachers began keeping a distance from them. They had to eat their meals in isolation. She was called a “whore” and every where she went, people used to look at her and whisper. She thought her days are numbered and found no beauty in life. Today, she is one of the faces of PLHIV in Bhutan, who in 2011 came out openly on national television, declaring her status as a HIV positive woman.
This is the story of 34-year-old Tshering Choden from Bumthang; a mother of four and wife of Wangda Dorji, the founder of Lhak-Sam.
In 2006, she went for a blood test at the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital (JDWNRH), with her husband. They gave their blood and had just got out of the hospital, when they were asked to come back. The health workers said there were some complications with their blood.
Unaware of what was in store, the couple went back to the blood testing room, where two health workers were seated. “It was Ata Ngawang and sister Tshering Yangchen. We reached there and the two were very silent. They were not able to look us in our eyes,” Tshering remembers. “My husband has always been strong and he then asked them what the problem was. He said that even if it is the worst news one can hear, he was ready.”
The silence was broken and together with it Tshering saw her life shattering. “They said we have HIV/AISDs. These were the only words I remember hearing; I thought it was a dream, a nightmare and could not hear what they were talking about,” Tshering recounts. All she could think about was the future of her daughter as she thought she would be dead soon.
The two health workers counseled them, telling HIV/AIDs is not a killer like most thought. If proper care and medication are taken, one could lead a normal life.
Tshering did not know what normal meant, for she was suddenly broken, with concerns that her parents would not be able to take the news; stigma she and her family would undergo and the concern if medicines would really work.
“The first thing I did was telling my husband that we would not disclose our status to anyone and he agreed,” Tshering recollects. However, she confided with just one person – her sister with whom she lived. “At first, she was silent and then she hugged me and said I need not worry.”
Tshering says that as time rolled on, she was concerned about her husband. “He used to spend hours reading about HIV/AIDs. I was worried that he may fall sick or get into depression.” It was only later that Tshering realized why her spouse was reading.
Wangda Dorji by then had formed an informal group of PLHIV. He had read about similar situations in other countries and the roles an organization would play in helping PLHIV, while also preventing the virus from spreading. And in 2009, Lhak-Sam began operating informally. After a year it was registered as a CSO.
While the dust seemed to have settled for a while, a storm came along Tshering’s life. “One evening Wangda told me that he and some of his friends were going to declare their status on national television. I was shocked,” Tshering says, adding she was completely against it. She was worried about the public’s reactions and the troubles she and her family would have to go through. “HIV/AIDs was the most dreaded and people did not know much about it. People thought that even by touching someone with the virus, they would be infected.”
Tshering remembers telling Wangda that they may have to divorce if he went forward with his plan. But Wangda had made the decision; there was no turning back and he explained why it was important to reveal their identities. He told Tshering that my looking at them, people will understand what HIV/AIDs is and clear misconceptions. He further mentioned that hearing their stories people would be more careful and even go for tests.
“I knew that four men were coming out, though there were also women with the virus. We had been together, supporting each other throughout our life and I thought that abandoning him during such a critical moment would be betrayal. So, I also decided to come out openly,” Tshering recounts. Her family members were against it, but she too, made her stand clear.
Tshering says she could not sleep properly the night before they were to come out. “I knew that there would be consequences which would affect our lives, especially my children. But then, I also thought about the benefits PLHIV and others would get,” she says. “I will never forget that moment. It was similar to the moment I experienced when I was first told about my status.”
Tshering was right. A month after the disclosure, her landlord asked the family to move out. “I do not blame him. He is illiterate, but others residing in the same building did not want us there.” The family moved to the flat where Wangda’s cousin lived. “We shifted at night as we were concerned that the landlord may not let us in,” she says. However, the landlord did not say anything. At school, her daughters bore the brunt of their friends and the two had to change their schools.
To eke out a living, Tshering began to learn weaving at a center in Thimphu. “After few days, the owner came saying that if I spilt a little blood as I wove, it would be dangerous. I lost that opportunity, too.”
Tshering felt that her life would be enveloped by darkness. However, one day the sun appeared from behind the clouds. “We were told that His Majesty the King wanted to meet us. It was in 2011 and I cannot say how emotionally moved I was. At that moment I thought I was fortunate to be a PLHIV as I would not have availed the opportunity at all,” she recollects. Tshering adds that after the audience, she was not bothered about what people said. “His Majesty treated us like any other Bhutanese. So, I thought that what others though or spoke about was immaterial.”
Gradually, Tshering began to go for advocacy to other regions accompanying Her Majesty Gyalyum Sangay Choden Wangchuck. “All these events revived my life. Rather than staying indoors and crying, it was more important to move out and talk to people,” she says.
While underlining that there is still self-stigma and discrimination, Tshering says that with advocacy, everything will be resolved. “We need intensive advocacy, regular ones. This will not just reduce discrimination, but also prevent the spread of HIV/AIDs,” she adds.
Today, Tshering looks after the shelter house for PLHIV in Genekha. Her four kids are healthy and doing well in studies. “Yes! I tasted the bitter part of life. But I think this was to make me realize how precious life is and what one ought to do.”