“They have to talk about you, because when they talk about themselves no one listens.” These are words from South African celebrity, author and businesswoman Bonang Matheba.
I relate well with these words, especially when it comes to how we as young people have approached HIV issues in Botswana. Although HIV has been a part of our lives for a long time, we are still fearful to take action by testing in order to know our HIV status. Despite everything that has been done over the years, it is still difficult for youth to talk about HIV openly. This fear and silence is holding us back from the life we should be living.
Youth of Botswana, listen up. This is about you and no one else. People may talk about you, but I say, ‘Let them talk.’ If they have the audacity to talk about you, it simply means that you are doing something right. Always remember this is about you and you only. I urge you to make that decision and get tested. Whether the results come back negative or positive, this is your life. You have a right to know your status and a right to treatment if you are HIV-positive. If your test shows you are HIV-positive, don’t despair, there is still a full life waiting for you with treatment. You can still achieve your dreams. Some youth are not taking care of themselves, living as if there is no tomorrow. I just want to encourage youth to live each day with purpose and determination. We need to live with the expectation that our future is there for the taking.
On December 1st, we will commemorate the 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day under the theme, “Know Your Status.” Earlier this year, Youth Day was held under the theme, “Safe Spaces for the Youth.” These are the most important messages for us to embrace as young Batswana. We must create safe spaces for youth to freely test for HIV and do it regularly, without holding back or being sceptical about it.
Likewise, we need to create safe spaces for youth taking ARV treatment to go for their regular check-ups on time, especially those in tertiary schools. Safe spaces will help them to adhere well to their medication and we will make progress in preventing new infections by increasing the number of people with HIV who are virally suppressed. As a nation, we need to work together to create safe spaces for people to take their medications without being discriminated or judged. I would love to see us create safe spaces where we can just take our ARVs, like we do with paracetamol or any other medicine. There is no reason that people should not feel welcome to take their pills in public spaces, whether in the bus, at the rank, at the office, or in school.
How can we let something as small as a virus to come between us and take away that sense of belonging within us? Let’s have each other’s backs all the time. We are bigger than HIV. If we get behind this initiative, we can make the end of AIDS a reality in the near future. This is our Botswana, our youth, our space spaces!
Let’s Fight GBV
On a cool Sunday in March some years ago, I decided to take a walk and I found myself at one very popular place in town.
As the place was known for delicious braai and I was feeling a bit hungry, I decided to order a plate. Seated at a table in the back, I noticed a couple enter. I knew them very well. They chose a table, ordered food, and began drinking beer. It was one beer after the other for both of them. They did not notice me. So I pretended not see them and just sat at my table, slowly sipping my juice. It began to get dark and several things started happening. When I noticed almost everyone was getting very drunk and dancing. I wanted to get out of the place as fast as I could.
As I walked outside to the parking lot, I spotted a cab. As I headed for the cab, I noticed some people in the car next to it. The lady I had seen in the restaurant with her partner earlier was inside the car, but she was kissing a different man. The man who was with the lady earlier arrived and a big fight started. The cab driver refused to go because he wanted to see what was happening. We both were able to hear their loud exchange of words. According to the man, the lady was HIV positive and on treatment. He said he was doing her a favour by dating her while he was HIV negative.
He said he was only in the relationship because he thought he had nowhere to run, because he could be infected and still in the window period. The woman also started shouting out and saying how the man was abusing her because of her condition and that she was fed up. I knew there was no place for me to intervene in this matter, more so that I was sober and they were drunk.
I left the place when the situation was a bit calm, but deep down I wished I could have done something. I told myself I would go see the woman and talk to her on an agreed date, but because of my busy schedule I did not manage to meet with her. Later I heard that the guy had killed her and committed suicide. No one knew the reason for this tragic outcome. I could not help but wonder if the fight that I had witnessed had been the tipping point or if I could have said something to her that would have made a difference.
I share this sad story to illustrate how HIV continues to influence our relationships and contributes to sexual abuse and violence, particularly against women. No one deserves to be mistreated by a partner because of his or her HIV status. We can learn to recognize the signs of abuse, report abuse to the police, and be aware of where to get help if you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship. For help, you can contact the following organizations:
Botswana Gender Based Violence Prevention and Support Center (formerly Kagisano Society Women’s Shelter) at 390-7659, after hours: 74265081, or SMS “HELP” to 16510, or send private message to Facebook: @botswanagbvpreventionandsupportcenter
WoMen Against Rape (WAR) Tel: 686-0865/71311244, Plot 517 Moeti Road, Maun. Facebook: @WoMen Against Rape Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Stepping Stones International (contact in cases involving children 18 and younger); Tel: 573-9858, Facebook: @SteppingStonesInternational
“Let’s Break Stigma and Face the World”
Iam convinced that the change we need to end the HIV epidemic can only occur if more people living with HIV begin to participate in the response.
I want to appeal to those who have gone into hiding to come out and face the world. We are not part of the problem, rather we are part of the solution. We need to stand up and show people out there HIV is real, but it can be managed if you live positively by starting treatment early and taking care of yourself.
Recently, I met a group of students from a junior secondary school who surprised me with how much they knew about HIV. I realised how important it is to not wait until it’s too late to talk about HIV issues with our young people.
While we are busy trying to hide things from them, thinking that they are too young to understand, they are actually ahead of us. For instance, they asked me why adolescents (under 16) need consent from parents to test for HIV. They explained that this policy presents a barrier to youth knowing their HIV status. Sometimes youth encounter situations that put them at risk and need to test for HIV, but much of the time they cannot easily discuss this with their parents in order to get their consent for testing.
We still have some forms of stigma that are holding us back as a society from ending this epidemic. I have observed on many occasions the look on people’s faces when I talk openly about my status. This is usually followed by silence or unresponsiveness to what I say.
It is my wish to hear an influential person in my country, whether a pastor or any type of leader, talk openly about their HIV-positive status. It would make a big difference and change the public perception about HIV. Of course, going public with your HIV positive status takes not only bravery, but also commitment to a lifelong journey of living not only for yourself but for the community as well. All eyes begin to watch your every move.
For some of us, facing this challenge moulds us into stronger people, while for others, the challenges of going public become too difficult to overcome. That is why it is very important to find a support system before going public, so that one can be prepared ahead of time to respond to these challenges through proper counselling and support. Botswana Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (BONEPWA+) provides this counselling and support free of charge through a large number of support groups that are based throughout Botswana.
Many people are not aware there is this kind of support near their homes, so when they are faced with challenges they break down or go into hiding. I have seen recent success in adopting what is called the greater involvement of people living with HIV. For example, this year the Treat All Champions project, which was supported by PEPFAR, provided a group of 30 of us with a platform to spearhead new activities addressing stigma, disclosure, ARV adherence, and other issues pertaining to people living with HIV. I am thankful to have served as one of the Treat All champions and I am continuing to encourage people to test and know their status all over the country.