On World AIDS Day, Montserrat Fernández, Programme Officer for Central America, tells us how our partners in Guatemala are supporting women, men and children living with HIV.
The first time I met a person with HIV was in 1990, 25 years ago, in Canada. Since then, through my work with CAFOD in Central America, I have met dozens of girls, boys, women and men living with HIV, all of whom have enriched my understanding of how to live with dignity and with strength. On World AIDS Day, I want to share with you just one of the many stories from these individuals who have inspired me so much.
Gimena and David’s story
Gimena and her husband David are both living with HIV. When their baby boy was born, Gimena was breastfeeding him, unaware of the risks of transmitting the virus through her milk. They were not sure at that stage whether or not he was HIV positive because all newborns have antibodies from their mother, which means an HIV test shows positive, even if the baby is not infected himself.
Gimena said: “The doctor told me: ‘Don’t breastfeed him any more.’ I started praying, asking God to save my baby.
“A year and a half later I said to God: ‘It’s going to be your will, not my desire.’ They tested my son, and after a time they told me: ‘Congratulations Mrs Gimena! Thank God! Although you breastfed him for four months, his HIV test result is negative.’ The doctors shouted and hugged each other, saying: ‘The child is well!’ I wept for pure joy.”
HIV in Verapaz, Guatemala
In 2013, when I met Gimena and David, 1,842 new cases of HIV were recorded in Guatemala. And in Verapaz, where Gimena and David live in the north central part of Guatemala, the number of people living with the virus has grown swiftly over the last ten years. Verapaz is a rural and remote area, at least five hours north of Guatemala City, and large numbers of men are migrating away from here because there aren’t enough employment opportunities in the region. Sometimes the men engage in high-risk sexual conduct while they’re away and upon returning home they risk transmitting the virus to their wives.
Throughout 2015, CAFOD partner Pastoral Social supported 39 women, 22 men, 7 girls and 4 boys in Verapaz living with HIV. With a lack of specialist medical services in town, Pastoral Social have set up a laboratory and today women and men with HIV have access to better health care.
Stigma and discrimination still remain huge challenges for people living with and affected by HIV. People can be cut out of their family and community, lose their job, or be too scared to go for tests or to take their medication. Pastoral Social therefore also run awareness-raising activities and information campaigns to help diminish this stigma and discrimination.
CAFOD’s partner – a lifeline for families with HIV
The overall support from Pastoral Social is a lifeline for families living with HIV – giving them advice on taking their medication, staying healthy, the importance of good nutrition and combatting discrimination.
Gimena’s husband David told me: “I used to cry a lot. Because my children are so young, nobody would take care of them and we hardly had any support. My father doesn’t like my kids, nor does my mum. They’re separated, and my brothers don’t care for me any more, but since I started visiting Pastoral Social I’ve received a lot of support. Sometimes I don’t have money for my children’s school supplies, and they help me with that too.”
Gimena added: “To be truthful, I considered taking my life, but leaving my children orphans would help no-one. I give thanks to God and to Pastoral Social for their great support. Thanks to the advice they gave, I am alive today.”
Pastoral Social records show that indigenous women and housewives have the highest rate of HIV infection in the last years in Verapaz. So over the last three years, Pastoral Social have been linking HIV to human rights and violence against women – setting up violence prevention workshops which focus on understanding subjects such as sex, gender and violence. They also look at cycles of violence and different types of violence, and learn about relevant legislation.
The future of HIV in Guatemala
The Catholic Church in Guatemala is also working on gender equality awareness and empowerment of women, by connecting respect for human rights, HIV and violence against women. And supporting people who are lonely, isolated and in need of support, understanding and solidarity.
Still today, even with all the work done by CAFOD partner Pastoral Social and other organisations, every week in Verapaz there is one new person diagnosed with HIV. Pastoral Social supports almost one in ten people with HIV in Verapaz, but it’s vital we reach more people like Gimena and David who are living in remote areas.
What most impressed me most about Gimena was her positive attitude towards life. She told me: “I used to hang my head, but now thanks to the meetings I’ve participated in, I don’t feel that I’m different from the others who don’t have HIV. We’re all humans. Now I recognise my right to live.”
A day of games, music and dance can make a real different to a child affected by HIV. £22 can make a child smile with our World Gift.