(1/4) “I remember being a happy and carefree child many years ago. It ended early as I got married at 15. My husband was a driver so we moved around a lot. We had 2 daughters together but he left me when I was 28 for another woman. I married again to a man who was a few years younger than me. The marriage lasted for 5 years until he decided I was too old for him and he left. He had no children from me so he offered me nothing when we separated. I had to do something to keep my family’s head above water. A family I knew was looking for someone to help farm the 5 acres of yiser land they had in Sarpang. They told me that they would give me a part of the land and even help me educate my younger daughter. So I left her with them in Paro and moved to Sarpang to do this job. I worked hard to see this deal through. I woke up with the crack of dawn to clear the land of trees and bushes and cultivate all kinds of crops. I was allowed to keep most of the harvest. The landowner only asked for a small portion. It was a good deal, my elder daughter had dropped out of school and gotten married but the one in Paro was in school. I felt fine. And then I developed a chronic knee ache that refused to heal. We couldn’t diagnose the disease or treat it. Having to physically work was getting difficult. Only after 5 years did I come to Thimphu to get a check-up and finally got diagnosed. My entire world turned upside down when doctors told me that I had HIV. I didn’t know what to do. I got really sick. I went to Paro and shared my diagnosis with the landowner. They were surprised and didn’t say much. I felt despair creep in but needed to keep going because my children needed it. I went back to Sarpang and continued to work equally hard. I owed it to the people who were helping my kid study. My illusion, however, was shattered when my daughter’s teachers told me that her grades were really bad because she was overworked. I didn’t understand until they told me that they’d seen her carry sacks of manure on her back on a school day. I had no idea.”

 

(2/4) “All this time, I’d trusted that family to send my daughter to school while I worked for their land. There was no way I was letting this continue. I took my daughter with me and begged the principal at Sarpang to admit her. I had to tell a few lies to get her in. But soon it got difficult to live there with having to make constant visits to the hospital for my illness. That’s when I came to Thimphu, found a job as a cleaner in a car workshop and lived with my sister’s family. I asked them not to tell my workplace about my HIV status. But when I came back from a 2-week trip to Sarpang during which my sister was replacing me at my job, I found out I had been fired. When I went in to check why I didn’t have to even ask. From the look that the people were giving me, it was apparent that my sister had told them about my HIV status. They were scared of me and gave me odd looks. My sister asked me to move out of her house. I was homeless but what hurt more was that she had betrayed my trust. I started looking for work again. I walked with 2 women I’d just met to Debsi where a group of people was working. I asked a man in the group if we could find any work here. He pointed us to the supervisors. I didn’t want to repeat the mistake of hiding the truth again and confessed to being a person living with HIV. They hired me anyway. I was given a small bamboo hut to live in and everyone was very kind. They didn’t bombard me with looks but asked me to be careful not to get cuts or injured. I did my best to be cautious. The supervisor made sure that everyone was aware of what HIV really was and that no one in the labour camp discriminated against me. Slowly, we became a family. The children at the camp came to my house, and we all celebrated festivals together. However, other rejections and mistreatments have taken a toll on my mental health. I’d started drinking heavily.  I got called for routine checkups at the hospital where the doctors and nurses would give me medication and psychological support. I’d started drinking to cope with my faltering mental health and my face had turned dark as a side effect.”

(3/4) “One of the health supervisors saw that I was struggling and got me into a workshop in Phuentsholing in hopes of getting me to quit. He called me late in the evening and asked me to attend this workshop the next day in Phuentsholing. I hitched a ride immediately and planned to stay at my brother’s house when I got there. But he wouldn’t answer my calls. When I reached Phuentsholing at 12 am, no hotel was open to check into. I sat confused outside the bus booking and looked around for shelter. I tried to climb over the fence to the bus booking compound, hoping it’d be safer inside but the fences were too high. Scared and with nowhere to go, I arranged the sacks of chilis that were stacked on the sidewalk and slept in the middle. In the morning, I went to attend the workshop with my clothes reeking of chili. I had a story to tell everyone there. I wanted to come clean and tell as many people as possible about my HIV status. I went to my village and shared it with all my relatives and friends. They were the ones I looked to for support and help, but they were scared of me the minute I told them. The news had reached everyone in my village. A lady in a shop announced, “Here comes the one with HIV.” I’d left my village after getting married. The same year my mother had passed away. I was the eldest of 6 siblings and therefore no less than a mother to them. I’d never imagined that anything could change that. But their reluctance to accept my HIV status did. They all live in Thimphu but always turned around and walked away when they saw me. My other relatives followed suit. My father is in his 80’s now, and I want to visit him in the village but can’t. I often worry whether he gets his meals on time or if someone looks after him when he falls sick. I sometimes send him food rations and ask my daughter to buy and deliver them so that no one can reject it because I handled them. He did visit me once. I was beyond happy to have him in my house but my sister came and took him with her in the middle of the night.”

 

(4/4) “ The one place I was treated with equal dignity was at work. The pay of just Nu.231/-, however, was making it hard. It was also labour intensive. I tried to find jobs with higher pay through vacancies on the radio. I tried calling for cleaning jobs but when I told them about my HIV status, everyone said the same thing- “With your health, you won’t be able to cope with the work.” Something told me that nothing I said to that would change their mind. I gave up on applying for more jobs. My immune system was deteriorating. The numbers were below what was considered dangerous. Health workers worried and involved me in different workshops to help me become stronger and healthier. Through these workshops, I developed a stronger want to help people who were suffering in silence and fearing prejudice. I knew there were people around me who kept their HIV status hidden and resorted to excessive drinking to cover their pain. I helped some of them become parts of networks that cater to people living with HIV. I also spoke at different meetings about my struggles with stigma and discrimination.
The promise of the 50 acres of land for which I worked 10 years never came to fruition. My youngest daughter still studies in a boarding school in Sarpang and it has become hard for me to fund her education. Every year, her school shopping list overwhelms me. During the lockdown, I had no money but still managed with difficulty to buy her a phone for her online studies. This time I didn’t have to buy a single notebook thanks to Lhak-Sam. Being a single mother who has no support from her family, I worry day and night about how I can send her to college, every time resorting to the belief that she won’t go to college. Other than that, I’m safe and healthy. Our labour camp was identified as a COVID red zone but the dessups made sure all amenities were dropped directly to my doorstep. They constantly reminded me how risky it could be for people with HIV to contract Covid. I was also given kidu which I could send to my daughter for her school expenditure.”

An estimate of around 1300 people in Bhutan are living with HIV. Apart from their HIV status, they too live lives similar to everyone- with struggles and happiness, raising families, and working hard to achieve their dreams.

Be a part in ending stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV.

 

This story was shared on HoT April Issue. Subscribe now for Early Access and Exclusive Stories from Humans of Thimphu Monthly Newsletter! 

 

 

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