Written by Sigo Still*
Is sex a taboo in the world of international development?
Do you think sex is a taboo when it comes together with an STD? Have you always, 100% of the time, used condoms? Do you speak about all this with your sexual partners?
Does anyone think that it can happen to them? Well, it happened to me.
Yes, I had unprotected sex, and yes, I am talking about HIV, a virus which doesn’t care about gender, age, sexual orientation, education level, religion, good or bad people, national borders or anything else.
Here is my story:
After my Master in International Development, I went to an African country* as a volunteer to gain experience at the beginning of a career in aid. It was not my first time on the continent, I had been before: volunteering during a summer, tourism and on a university grant. After my 9 months volunteering abroad, I came back home and I went to the doctor for a general check up. The news was devastating. During my time as a volunteer, working, meeting amazing people, learning from a different culture, eating the food, dancing to the music, wearing the clothes, travelling around, I also had unprotected sex and the test came positive for HIV.
I have learnt that some mistakes are forever. I can not change my HIV positive status, it will be with me the rest of my life. Apart from the tears, nights without sleeping, doctor appointments and psychological therapy, I have used the situation to learn a lot about HIV/AIDS: treatment, visa regulations, prevention campaigns, organizations and other people stories. For me, getting to know the story of other aid workers in the same situation as me gave me hope and courage to continue.
Sex is part of our private lives and HIV is also part of mine, but I couldn’t think for a second not to tell my previous sexual partners. These were difficult phonecalls to make. and I was afraid of two things:
- Losing my privacy because they can choose to tell others about it.
- It is going to continue to affect other people, as they don’t want to get tested.
Religion is a big part of their lives and they want to believe that they are alright. But the real reasons that make it very scary to know that maybe you can test positive is all the social stigma as well as the lack of information about access to treatment.
Why would you want to know if you think that other people will treat you bad or that you can not get treatment because you think you won’t be able to afford to pay for it?
Believe me, sometimes I have wished that I didn’t know. But I could become very sick, die or even transmitted to someone else (my future babies?).
In my story I didn’t use condom, but the only true prevention is for people to know their status. If you use condom you can still get infected – it can break, for example. I know what I am going to say is difficult to understand or believe, but it can be safe to practice sex with a HIV positive person under treatment, as the virus load get to undetectable levels in which case you don’t transmit it even without using condom. But condoms should be used – also to prevent many other STD, especially for the HIV positive person, as they are more exposed to new infections and it can lead to difficult to treatment combinations.
The risk is not in the number of sexual partners, the risk is in the lack of protection and unknown personal status. It can only take one time in your entire life without a condom (or with a broken one) to get infected.
Before I knew my status, I had an offer for my first real job in my aid career. A local NGO in Africa wanted me to be part of their team. Initially I decided to hide the truth from my future boss and I refused to take the job, as I couldn’t get answers from the embassies about work and resident permits for a HIV positive person and, more importantly, whether or not I would be able to follow my treatment there.
After the initial shock, I felt braver and I told my boss the truth. I sent him all my research with information of access to treatment and visas regulations. He has been very professional and has given me the time I needed to get myself together and deal with the situation. In few weeks I will start working with them. I am going back to work, live, and get HIV care/treatment in Africa.
I hope that to share my knowledge and experiences with HIV in Africa can, little by little, fight to reduce the stigma around this disease. People must not be afraid to know their status and to deal with it, or there will never stop being new infections add to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
*The name of both the author and the relevant country has been left out to preserve anonymity.