In another post earlier today, I quoted a doctor turned film-maker in India saying people affected by HIV are dying more from the social stigma attached to the disease than by the disease itself.
Social stigma is a wide-spread problem that confronts people living with HIV in all parts of the world.
But occasionally, we hear some good news: how community has overcome its prejudices and accepted those infected with HIV with affection and care. Usually, it happens after going through the knee-jerk reactions.
It would be very worthwhile for some research to be done on how and when community attitude changes: what are the triggers? what is the tipping point?
The film, titled Love for a Longer Life (26 mins, 2002) was directed by leading Nepali documentary film-maker Dhurba Basnet.
The best cup of tea in the Ratomate village, in central Nepal, is made by a woman called Laxmi Lama. She works in a tea shop owned by her father. “People tell me my father does not know how to make good tea,” she says. “They want me to make tea. The men like their tea strong. When I give my customers strong tea they say one cup is enough for the whole day.”
This is nothing unusual – except that Laxmi is living with HIV. A few years ago, no one in her village would have come near her, let along clamour for a cup of tea she makes.
Born into a very poor family, Laxmi was sold off to a Bombay brothel at the age of 14, and worked as a commercial sex worker for nearly three years before returning to Nepal. She married a man from her village and had settled down to a peaceful routine when a health worker tested her blood and found her positive for HIV. That changed everything dramatically: her husband fled, never to return, and everybody shunned her. The pregnant woman sought refuge in her parents’ house.
That was the fate of most Nepalis living with HIV – abandoned by friends, ostracised by community and left to their own devices. But thanks to the perseverance of a few courageous people – many HIV positive themselves – community attitudes have changed slowly, and have come almost full circle: being reassured that HIV does not spread through casual physical contact, they have accepted her back into their fold.
The moment of truth is when she makes Ratomate’s favourite cups of tea with her bare hands, and men and women flock to taste it. Such a major transformation of community attitudes captured in such a simple, elegant sequence.
Laxmi’s neighbour Kumari Shrestha sums it all up: “We have to give her love. If we do that, she will live longer.”
It would be wonderful if we can discern how and when this change happens. So that it can be induced in thousands of other villages and communites where persons living with HIV are currently battling the virus within, and stigma without.