- A mere mention of the name HIV/AIDS in Senegal is tantamount to a taboo. It is unlike other African societies, where people living with the AIDS virus are going public to share their experiences with people. Rather, AIDS victims in Senegal prefer to bury their story under the carpet and cry in silence instead, mainly because of the stigma they are faced with.
Senegal is a highly religious country with 95 percent Muslims. And according to researchers, sex issues are so complex in Senegal that people carefully choose their words. This has refrained people living with HIV/AIDS to go public for fear of being stigmatised or cursed.
But an activist, Mariam Sillah, is trying to paint a different picture. She is giving a human face to the pandemic through the creation of films. Like many films, hers are only played in conferences, as such films are not allowed to be aired on national television.
"Stigmatisation of people living with AIDS is making it impossible for them to appear public, let along share their experiences. This is a bad trend which must be broken and that is why I invite an Islamic scholar to be among my film actors," Ms Sillah said.
According to most AIDS victims in Senegal, their stigmatisation begins in their homes. "My mother abandons me as soon as I tell her about my status. She brands me a prostitute. Since then, HIV/AIDS becomes my friend and the best moment in my life happens when I deliver a child who becomes negative," sadly stated a covered victim.
With a population of 13 million people, official figures show that 0.7 percent is living with AIDS. Most of these people live in the south of Senegal, Casamance, which has been the centre of a separatist rebel war since the early 1980s.
Except Ismaila Kujabi, no other Senegalese living with AIDS is brave enough to come public. Activists are now trying to use the story of Ismaila to lure people to come public and avoid crying in silence.
Activists are also bringing victims from other countries to share their experiences with their Senegalese counterparts. One such victim is the 23-year-young Namibian woman, Naleo Martin, who has been living with the virus for eight years.
The mother of a seven-year-old boy said she contracted the disease while in the secondary school after having had an unprotected sex with a boy friend. "I thought it was safe to have unprotected sex but unfortunately the pleasure backfired, as I became pregnant and turned HIV-positive with my baby," Ms Martin sombrely said.
"As a young African women living with AIDS, we have a lot of challenges. We are excluded from the normal life society because of stigma, discrimination, neglect and isolation, which are very high in African societies, especially in Senegal where people associated the disease with death and prostitution."
Ms Martin said it is rather unfortunate that HIV bears the face of a woman in Africa. "I know the prevalent ratio is high among the women but this does not give the right for people to discriminate or isolate us. I think it is necessary to give the person the platform to cope with the disease to allow him/her become productive. Though young, I am still a productive citizen of my country and I am proud to lead other young people."
Ms Martin urged African governments to go beyond providing anti-retroviral drugs to people living with HIV/AIDS. "Supplying drugs alone without the right nutrition does not help us," she said.
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