Stories of HIV positive members

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.”

Standing Firm – Lhak-Sam’s Pride

With a sturdy body, face exhibiting happiness and brimming with confidence, no one would know that 34-year-old Tshering (name changed) is a HIV/AIDs victim. A mother of two children, she epitomizes how effectively a civil society organization (CSO) like Lhaksam has managed to make her believe in herself.
But she was not what she is today. Like most of her friends, she had to walk the path of pain and fear that all HIV/AIDs patients do.
“I was a good student with lots of friends,” she reminisces, narrating several practical jokes she used to engage in. However, one practical joke changed her and shattered her dreams to be an example of a perfect woman in her village.
“At school, we used to make prank calls. While indulging in that, I became close to a man from Thimphu,” Pema recounts, her face slowly transforming from what reflected happiness to that of sadness. “It was 2006. I cannot remember the day or month. He called me to Thimphu town and asked me to wait for him in a hotel.”
Innocence and the feeling that the person was a good man, added by the fact that he was a relative of one of her friends, Pema took the path she can never forget. “I reached the hotel and after sometime, he arrived. He asked me if I wanted to drink or eat and I said I was fine,” Pema continues. She then recounts that it had become dark. She wanted to leave the hotel, but the weather gods were not with her. It began to rain heavily and continuously.
“He then gave me a key and said that I could rest in the room,” Pema says, adding she had no idea of what would come next. She remembers that the room had two beds and she rested on the bed from where she could comfortably watch television.
“After sometime, he entered the room and came very close to me. I asked what he was up-to and he replied that he also wanted to watch TV,” Pema adds.
As she takes a heavy breath, I know what would come next. “He slowly started to touch me and when I pushed him, he became angry and began touching my private parts, too,” Pema narrates, her eyes filled with tears, but ensuring that it does not drop.
“I was a virgin and so weak for him as he came onto me.” She can no longer hold the tears. I look for a tissue paper, but finding none tells her if she wants to take a break. She remains silent. I then tell her I will have a smoke and return.
As I return, she apologizes and says she is embarrassed, too. I tell her one should let go emotions and without any hesitation tells her that it was rape of a minor.
“Yes. But that time I did not know about it and I could neither tell my parents or friends as they would definitely have asked me why I went to the hotel in the first place,” she says, adding she cannot tell all that happened next.
Pema resumed her normal schedules. But fate had another shock in store. In 2008, she donated blood at the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital (JDWNRH). “I received a call from the hospital that I must do a re-test,” she says, adding that when she got the call, she even joked with her friends saying she could be HIV positive.
Her joke turned true as she was told that she was HIV positive as she reached the hospital. “Everything went blank. I cried like a child in the arms of Ata Ngawang (counselor),” she recounts, adding she had got the virus on the unfortunate day in 2006. She narrates that she had no sexual intercourse with anyone after that and adds that the man also tested positive.
She began medication in 2010. Counseled but torn, Pema joined a nunnery, where she spent 11 months. She then returned home and married in 2012. “My husband knows about my status, but I have not told any one from my family,” she says, adding she does not feel the need to dishearten her parents.
Later, she became part of Lhaksam. “I learned a lot here, starting from emotional support to being independent, handling stigma and the importance of self-esteem.” She also worked at Lhaksam as a staff.
When asked if she has any message to the people, she says she has a request. “Please get rid of stigma and do not discriminate. It kills and is more terrible than the disease itself.”

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