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HIV stigma: the last hurdle to an AIDS-free generation

The MidweekSun Admin

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The mid-eighties were some of the loneliest years for Kgosi Kebinatshwene Mosielele of Manyana, as he experienced the ugliest and brutal form of HIV stigma during the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

The first person with HIV had just been identified in Selibe Phikwe in 1985 and unfortunately for Mosielele, a handsome young man on top of his game and the envy of many of his peers, everyone in the mining town thought he (Mosielele) was this identified Mr. X, and he was spreading the virus.“Suddenly my social life was in shambles, the rumour mill went on overdrive and friends and colleagues shunned me,” he confessed to The Midweek Sun. The isolation forced him to seek transfer to Jwaneng but within a short while, the news that Mr. X of Phikwe had arrived in Jwaneng spread like wild fire.

Three transfers later with the HIV rumours still plaguing him, Kgosi Mosielele said he began to believe the rumours and was even afraid to get tested to refute them.
“Everywhere I went even children would point at me calling me Mr X.“I was scared to go to the hospital to get tested because I had started to believe I was positive,” he said. It was only when he went for a medical check up that he was forced to get an HIV test in order to study abroad, a move engineered to get him away from the toxic environment at work. “Even after my results revealed I was HIV negative, they couldn’t believe it at work and made me take another test!”

Kgosi Mosielele shared his experience to a packed hall during the 7th Botswana International HIV Conference, held at the Gaborone International Conference Centre recently. The theme of the bi-annual conference was “Time to End it: Find, Treat and Prevent-The Last Mile.”Happily married, with two grown children, Kgosi Mosielele acknowledges that while the country has come a long way in fighting the stigma, it is still a plague that continues to follow communities, more than 30 years after the AIDS crisis emerged.

Kennedy Mupeli, AVAC Fellow and Advocacy Officer, Centre for Youth of Hope (CEYOHO) concurs. Moderating a session that took an in-depth look at the experiences of people living with HIV, he pointed out that while medicine has advanced and some of the old stigmas have faded, the fear of catching something that never really goes away and that still can provoke a sense of blame remains.
“One of the true miracles of the last 25 years is ARTs,” Mupeli said. “At the beginning, we didn’t have any decent therapies, and the ones we had were hard to take and had a lot of side effects. But in the last 10 to 15 years, we have seen very effective, well-tolerated drugs. If a person can get them and stay on them, they can look forward to a life expectancy that’s very similar to someone without HIV.

Even better, science has also proved that taken properly, medication can make it even more difficult to transmit the virus through sex,” he stated. Unfortunately, according to Mupeli, morality often takes precedence over science. “I think that people attached it to behaviours they saw as wrong. And some of that still exists today. As such people a lot of times carry a load of guilt and responsibility which makes them afraid to disclose their status.”

Activist and Treat All champion, Regina Gaolebe knows this personally.“The nature of the fear has changed because the landscape has changed,” she said.“In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a lot of fear because people didn’t know how it was transmitted and they were dying in droves. Now, people don’t think about HIV as a crisis, but they are still afraid of HIV-positive people. The stigma is still fully alive and it’s a huge driver for new infections.”

The remaining stigma, she explained, is one that hinders people to disclose their status in relationships for fear of losing their partners. “Whenever I meet men who are potential boyfriends or husband, they literally run away as soon as I tell them I’m HIV positive,” she shared. Another part of the stigma is that people only get HIV due to careless behaviour and somehow deserve the disease. But Mompati Tamari (23) has lived with HIV since birth.

“When you are HIV-positive, a lot of people automatically think you have been having random sex with all kinds of different people. You end up not having the confidence to talk about HIV,” Tamari said. At some point in his life Tamari quietly broke up with his girlfriend of two years because she was ready to stop using protection during an intimate session. “I knew I couldn’t do it but I also couldn’t disclose my status and so I left.”

Within communities, some people living with HIV live in fear or at worst suffer the wrath of rejection from society. The only alternative is to keep one’s condition a secret and even shun certain services such as treatment. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), HIV-related stigma and discrimination refers to prejudice, negative attitudes and abuse directed at people living with HIV and AIDS. From such practices, there are consequences.

Unfortunately, they are wide-ranging as family, peers and the wider community shun some people, while others face poor treatment in healthcare and education settings, erosion of their human rights, and psychological damage. A summation of these limits access to HIV testing, treatment and other HIV services. “I don’t think that you can totally eliminate stigma,” another activist, diagnosed with HIV 20 years ago, Edwin Motse, said. “I think that it will always be an issue. But I think the way we overcome it is really getting to a place of being comfortable with ourselves.”
Motse also expressed concern that the role of people living with HIV is not really visible in the current setting and they are not given a voice where it matters. “At the beginning of the pandemic, it was people who lived with the virus who made the greatest impact.

This is the missing link. Beyond the great miles we have made medically, people need to hear real life stories and relate,” he said. According to Motse, “People don’t need to fear HIV, they need to know how it is transmitted, what puts them at risk and what reduces that risk. We have to make testing and treatment easier to access, and we need to make sure people are stable and healthy in wholesome ways.”

Knowing first-hand how bad the misconceptions about HIV can get, Motse and other activists have made it their lives’ calling to do the advocacy work, dissolve those stigmas, and start honest conversations about the disease. They travel the country and use their social media platforms and community organisations to tell their stories and what they have overcome.
By breaking down these barriers, they hope to open up discussion about HIV without the stigma attached to it.

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Gays, Lesbians look up to Masisi

Yvonne Mooka

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Lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trans-gender and intersex persons (LGBTI) want President Mokgweetsi Masisi to allow same sex relationships which to date, are deemed unlawful in Botswana.

Masisi had recently called for the respect and protection of LGBTI persons’ rights at the launch of the 16 Days of Activism against Violence on Women and Children last week. His utterances on the matter, enlisted words of praise and admiration from the LGBTI community would then pen him a letter of gratitude while also laying bare some of their nagging concerns.
“There are also many people of same-sex relationships in this country who have been violated and have also suffered in silence for fear of being discriminated. Just like other citizens, they deserve to have their rights protected,” Masisi stated at last week’s launch.

In their letter directed at the president, members of Lesbians Gays Bisexual of Botswana (LEGABIBO) thanked him for these words, saying they were thankful to his affirmation and mentioning of their ordeals and suffering. The president’s public acknowledgement of violations directed at members of this marginalised community, and his recognition of the discrimination and the resultant fear generated by all these, were particularly a source of inspiration to the concerned group.

These LEGABIBO members added that they are grateful to hear a sitting President speak openly and publicly on the need to protect those in same-sex relationships who have been violated.
“We are pleased that you named aloud the violence that members of our community suffer in their daily lives. We are writing this letter to encourage you to continue your efforts in ensuring that the human rights of all persons are upheld regardless of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

This is an example of good governance and respecting the rule of law,” says their letter. They further urged Masisi to raise expectations within Parliament for zero-tolerance of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, verbal or otherwise, urging his office further to make efforts to decriminalise consensual same-sex relationships, stating that Section 164 of the Penal code, which criminalises such relationships, fuels the violence, discrimination, suffering and fear.

“We are particularly interested in what you will do about this section of the law. Because this unjust law is the basis of violence directed at members of our community, your planned actions regarding this matter are of our primary and highest interest,” stated LEGABIBO. They also impressed upon the president to address the gender markers on their birth certificates, Omang and passports, adding that these markers were problematic and caused fellow citizens who identify as transgender and gender non-conforming to experience discrimination in all walks of life.
On related matters, they pleaded with the president to protect members of the LGBTI community from public violence and humiliation, citing a recent example where a transgender woman was attacked in Gaborone.

Religious leaders were neither spared as the concerned group also called on the president to protect members of their community against these religious leaders who fuel hatred towards them. “While we respect sincerely-held faiths in Botswana, we cannot condone those who preach inflammatory, discriminatory messages towards those who only seek to love members of the same sex,” says the letter, adding that the president should make a statement to all civil servants – teachers, healthcare workers, police and all service providers – that LGBTI people are citizens of this country, and like all other citizens, cannot be denied services available to the general public.

Members of the LGBTI community in Botswana say they are looking forward to Masisi’s leadership and a new approach to issues concerning sexual orientation and gender identity. “In conclusion, Your Excellency, we ask you to make it clear to all politicians that members of the LGBTI community are not amused hearing that politicians who support our rights will lose elections; hearing that we are to blame for lack of rain; and hearing religious and cultural doctrines that seek to disempower us. However, like you, we are interested in open dialogue to promote the human rights of LGBTI,” states the letter.

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AP’s varsity don enters lion’s den

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Senior Lecturer at the University Botswana (UB), Dr Kaelo Molefhe wants to represent the people of Gaborone Bonnington North constituency in Parliament from 2019, and he is convinced he will prevail over the formidable political trio of Duma Boko, Robert Masitara and Anna Motlhagodi.

It is an open secret now, that the constituency will see a fierce battle involving the Alliance for Progressives (AP) represented by Molefhe, Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) represented by Boko, Motlhagodi of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) as well a Masista who has indicated that he will be in the race as an Independent Candidate. Although he claims to be unperturbed by the collective political prowess of the other trio, Molefhe still faces a mammoth task of not only ousting incumbent MP Boko who is also Leader of Opposition in Parliament, but also has to convince the people of the affluent constituency that his new party is an entity they can trust with their lives.

Add to that the popularity of the other two contestants. The BDP’s Motlhagodi is an already established politician in the area, having been there and garnering thousands of votes in the area as a candidate of the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) from which she has since defected. On the other hand, Masitara has been the area MP, having been voted into the constituency between 2009 and 2014. Although he could not win against Boko in 2014, he was still voted by close to 5000 people. Thus Molefhe will be seen as a minnow – an underdog hoping to do the Donald Trump against the more popular figures of this race. US president Donald Trump was seen as a minnow and was given no chance against Hilary Clinton in that country’s last elections, and Molefhe has such David and Goliath stories to take solace in.

But the constituency itself has a plethora of problems waiting to be unravelled. With a population of 45 688, Gaborone Bonnington North is made up of six (6) wards – Boseja, Diphetogo, Moselewapula, Tlogatloga, Itumeleng and Bosele. A simple random survey conducted in the constituency showed that sections of the community are already unhappy that no Member of Parliament has been able to salvage them from the myriad of issues they have to deal with everyday. They neither had any flattering words for the incumbent, a powerful politician in his own right, thus casting aspersion on whether the new entrant will inspire better confidence. “We really do not know our MP.

The last time we saw him was when he was campaigning for the 2014 General Elections,” lamented a resident, who went on to catalogue their concerns in the constituency. “We do not have a government primary school in this area and are forced to send our children to far-away places like Mogoditshane, which is expensive,” said the resident, pointing also to the dangers posed by bushes in the area, which are a breeding ground for crime, saying they need to be urgently cleared.

Speaking with The Midweek Sun, the AP’s parliamentary candidate, Molefhe, said he was alive to the challenges the residents grapple with, adding that it was the gaping hole of no political action in the area that inspired him to want to go to Parliament to help address the situation. With his uppermost priorities centred around education, especially investing in the youth, he aims to tackle the absence of government primary schools in Blocks 6 and 7 so that children in the constituency can enjoy unfettered access to education.

Molefhe also pledged to address the scourge of drugs and alcohol abuse as well as youth unemployment, which he says have reached crisis proportions in Gaborone West Phase 2. “Among other things, we need to come up with short-term training that will equip the youths of the area with skills,” he quipped. He has in mind equipping youth with practical skills to be able to perform small jobs like fixings electrical faults and refrigeration repairs among other essentialities, which are commonly done by expatriates.

He said AP considers the youth as the key components in the improvement of the country hence, “we need to prioritise and invest wholly in them.” Repeated efforts to reach the other three (3) candidates proved futile as their mobile phones went unanswered, and they could not respond to text messages sent to them.

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