#WorldAIDSDay2020: Nigerians share their experiences about living with HIV and fighting stigma

HIV/AIDS

There are 1.9 million Nigerians living with HIV, according to a 2019 survey by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). While this is a worrying figure, Nigeria has obliterated nearly all spaces in discussing HIV stigma which has showed to kill faster than the virus itself. Chalk it up to a culture that attaches shame to having sex, that reinforces purity culture for girls and women, marginalise LGBTQ Nigerians and sees persons living with the virus as ”contaminated.”

This year’s World AIDS Day, commemorated every December 1 to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS in the world, is themed ”Global solidarity, Shared Responsibility” and calls for more collective action in reducing the transmission of HIV. And also ensuring that persons living with the infection can participate in the community, free from stigma and discrimination.

Teni, 27, heterosexual

After my boyfriend proposed to me in 2018, I learned that I had gotten HIV from the same man I was suppose to marry. We had tested negative before and when he confided in me that he was unfaithful during our relationship, I gave him back his ring and spiralled into depression. I couldn’t explain to all my friends why I had made such a decision but I told my family and it took them a year to come to terms that I had gotten HIV. Looking back now, I’m not sure rejecting my partner was the right thing to do, but I have safeguarded my status because HIV is still a taboo.

Charles, 30, bisexual

I’m going to start by saying that most times, I forget that I have HIV. I guess the reason this is so is because I don’t think about it and when I talk my drugs, it’s something I do on auto pilot. A woman I dated in 2016 broke up with me when she investigated the empty containers for my ARVs, she saw them in a corner of my wardrobe. That was the only time I have been stigmatised and it hurt like fuck because I did love her. Maybe I should I have told her? I don’t know. But there’s still so much stigma around HIV in this country, even from people who seem educated.

Kelvin, 29, gay

Um, it’s been an interesting experience so far. Finding out about my status never really freaked me out, I was 23 then. I’d say the treatment I got at the clinic I tested/registered was the traumatic experience for me. It started with the counselor (male) preaching to me how I’d go to hell as a gay man and till date that memory still strikes a nerve.

As a gay man, I resolved long ago to disclose my status to whoever I’m getting in bed with and this has been often met with strong criticism. I’ve been chastised a lot of times by queer folks for choosing to disclose my status to them before sex. The one thing they all say is “do you always tell everyone that you’re positive?” I’ve had a lot of gay men tell me not to disclose my status any longer because people are likely to use it against me. The appalling thing I’ve also encountered a couple of times, is that these men not wanting to use a condom after I reveal my status, also many of these people I found out being positive as well but they never disclosed.

The bottom line is stigma resides within and until we’re comfortable to talking about these issues personally without having to stigmatize ‘ourselves,’ HIV stigma would remain a big part of our society.

Uzor, 25, gay

So I found out by chance during a routine hospital trip where I had my bloodwork done, to be honest I wasn’t freaked out or anything because I had all the information. I just booked an appointment to see a doctor the following day where we discussed treatment options and the way forward, I was very chill because I was really not afraid.

I think that if you are gay in Nigeria this is a possibility. I had other issues for example I didn’t want to use the government facilities for treatment as I had concerns about anonymity but I also didn’t want to put it on my health insurance for fear it will get to my employers and I could get laid off which is a possibility in Nigeria so I ended up paying out of my pocket for all the tests and meds which was a lot. Living and dating as a queer person in Nigeria is another matter, I am undetected and therefore not infectious so I do not disclose this to hookups as I cannot infect them. I just ensure I use condoms if we are to have penetrative sex.

I fear I will tell someone and they will tell others, this keeps me up at night often. I however do tell people I want to date and this has happened four times and two times I was rejected by them, again I just shrugged it off and moved on. I will say because I had as much information as possible I was not terrified or distraught, I just keep up with my appointments and follow all the doctors say I should do and so far I have been doing well.

I think a lot more information is required, Nigerians typically fear what they don’t understand and HIV still remains this huge mystery which people think is always fatal. More dissemination of information at all levels is required for everyone to understand that HIV is just like any other chronic sickness. I think at the heart of it is because sexual intercourse is the main route of transmission and in a country with strong purity culture it is almost as if the person is tainted. It is changing but not fast enough, more information requires to be disseminated across all levels for this to change.

Tunde, 31, gay

I discovered I was HIV positive in April, 2017 and I felt devastated initially. I started taking my meds and the first few months wasn’t easy. There was a point that I didn’t take medication for a month because I had this skin reaction that looked like chicken pox and it was really bad. The experience has been both good and bad, bad in the sense that whenever I go for refill for my meds at the hospital, I’m reminded again that I have the virus and that’s a feeling I can’t get used to. It’s been good in that I’m more intentional and careful about my sexual health.

We can’t completely eliminate HIV stigma from Nigeria but we can help reduce it by talking to reeducating health workers and the general public. We need to tell people that persons living with HIV are more than the virus.

Josephine, 28, heterosexual

As a single mother of a 7-year-old son, I went celibate as soon as I tested positive. It’s been three years of living with the virus and till now, I still don’t know how I got it. It used to bother me so much that I went tracing my past sexual partners and asking them if they had the virus too. It led to a dead end. My sister knows about my status and that’s because I tell her everything. She’s my rock and I’m drawing strength from her. I think persons living with HIV should be able to tell one or two close persons about their status, just for the support.

My son has also been been there for me, and I cherish his little hugs. I contemplated suicide just once, but I kept thinking about my son and the his future that I will miss. No one should face HIV stigma, and we should all work together more than ever in fighting it.

All names have been changed in this piece to protect the persons involved.

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