Bhutanese Living with HIV Fight Social Stigma
Pema Dorje was cussed out and disowned by his family upon his return to Bhutan from his monastery in Darjeeling, India, in 1998. It was not because he had disrobed himself, but because he was infected with HIV.
“I was very disappointed,” 43-year Pema tells VOA Tibetan Service, speaking Tibetan. “Then I started drinking and taking drugs.” He even attempted to commit suicide by taking rat poisons.
Pema was one of the earlier Bhutanese detected with HIV.
In 2006 Wangda Dorje and his wife Tsering Choden were diagnosed HIV positive when Tsering was three months pregnant with their first child. Unlike Pema, who claims his doctors disclosed his confidential information, Wanda and Tsering managed to keep it a secret. They knew the social stigma would be far harsher to handle than HIV. “In my case, the HIV doesn’t create any pain,” says Wangda. “But stigmatization of others is really, unbearably painful.”
“Whenever I am alone, at mid night or whenever I am in the jungle when no one can hear me, I just shout to myself.” Wangda says, speaking on the phone with VOA Tibetan Service.
But eventually his shout woke up Bhutan.
In 2011, Wangda and his wife announced on Bhutan national TV that they had been living with HIV. They knew the immediate consequences of coming out in the public, but Wangda says the nation needed a change. “When the HIV positive people are stigmatized and discriminated, HIV negative people don’t want to come forward to get tested, and because if they are HIV positive, they are going to be stigmatized and discriminated.”
After coming out in the national television, the couple and their four children were kicked out of their apartment in Thimpu. Their landlord told them that other people were worried for getting infection by living in the same building with them.
Wangda didn’t give up. Along with Pema and few other people living with HIV, they started an organization called Lhagsam. Through this organization they raised HIV awareness and encouraged HIV patients to fight their stigma.
Today there are 430 Bhutanese living with HIV that have come out of their hide, they said. The new king gave audience to a group HIV patients and shook their hands so that the general public would understand that the virus doesn’t transfer simply through touch.
Pema believes there are still many more living secretly with the virus.
“I really believe that there are about one thousand HIV positives in Bhutan,” he says.
Wangda has four children and Pema has three children, all of whom are free of the virus. Pema learned that the best way to fight the virus is by being physically active. In 2013, he cycled from Bumthang to Thimbu (268 kilometers) in 13 hours. In the same year, he gave up using drug and alcohol.
40-year old Wangda, who was infected with HIV and Hepatitis C through sharing needles during his “addiction time”, feels his HIV in under control.
“To be honest, I am not afraid with HIV, but I am very afraid of dying from Hepatitis C.”