Living with AIDS


North Karachi: Sahar Ali of Panos with Naveen Naqvi

One of the first things Sahar Ali of Panos impresses upon me is that the HIV virus spares no one. “Anyone can get HIV/AIDS. Every one of us is vulnerable,” she said gesturing to herself and me.

Through her employing non-government organisation, Sahar and her team have been recording oral testimonies of Pakistani women living with HIV and AIDS. The objective is to act as a sort of link between policymakers and infected women.

“People who take decisions often can’t hear the actual stories of women who live with the disease,” she explains. “We want to bring the two closer.” Interestingly, in Pakistan while it is believed that HIV and AIDS are limited to women who are sex workers, Panos argue otherwise.

‘Policy-makers are gradually waking up to the dangers HIV poses to millions of women, particularly married women in Pakistan, whose low status puts them at greater risk.’

Another aim of the NGO is to bring women with HIV/AIDS to the attention of the media, and that’s how I found myself driving to North Karachi.

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Rubina Iqbal is a petite woman with a firm handshake and a broad smile that crinkles the corners of her eyes. She is one of around 80,000 people currently living with HIV in Pakistan. Looking at Rubina, a dominant misconception about the pandemic is dispelled right away – she appears to be completely healthy. Her story is compelling, and even if the narrative of how she contracted the disease is not unique, the resolution certainly is. Even more remarkable is the woman’s courage.

Rubina contracted the virus several years ago from her husband. “He was a drug user and he would frequent sex workers. He had unprotected sex with other women and with me,” she tells me. “I didn’t know anything about HIV/AIDS. When we found that he had it, I was checked and discovered that I had it too.” Her voice hardens as do her eyes when she recounts the impact of that revelation on her life. “My in-laws threw me out of the house. They took my children away from me when it was their son who had given me this disease. As far as they were concerned, I didn’t exist.”

For many Pakistani women the story would end there, but not so for Rubina. She went for help to Dr Saleem Azam’s Pakistan Society. Here she found care, employment and the opportunity to talk to people like herself, people who live with HIV/AIDS. She also found her best friend and now, husband, Iqbal, who like her made a new life for himself after coming to Pakistan Society.

“If it weren’t for Barray Papa (the name she and all others being cared for by Dr Azam use for him), I and so many like me would be on the street,” she tells me with a smile. Then I see her eyes fill with tears as she says, “That is where we will all end up again if our grant from the World Bank is not extended. The government is not interested in pursuing the grant, but the future of so many depends on it.”

The World Bank has been the major donor toward the prevention of HIV/AIDS in Pakistan, and their grant came to an end in December 2009. According to Dr Azam and his employees, it is the Ministry of Health that is dragging its feet on the issue. Sources in the Ministry have been reported to say that HIV/AIDS is no longer an issue in Pakistan.

In a narrow lane that resounds with noises – children playing, hawkers selling their wares, goats bleating, and motorbikes sputtering – Rubina stands beaming at her doorstep, waving goodbye. She may know that she does not have long to live, but she has hope and much of it rests on us.

8 Responses to “Living with AIDS”

  1. Thanks for showcasing this issue, Naveen. HIV/AIDS is a very taboo topic in Pakistan, which makes attempting to address it increasingly difficult. Tasneem at Uks, who you know, has been doing awareness campaigns via radio outreach, but more needs to be done to actually address the reality.

  2. Two brave women bringing the inspiring stories of other brave women. good going:)

  3. I have been trained as an HIV expert and have taken care of many here in US. HIV/AIDS is a completely treatable disease now. We have incredibly potent new medications with minimum side effects. As a result most HIV patients are living as long as any other person without the disease. I often tell my patients, “Its better to have HIV than Diabetes”, since we have far better treatment for the former disease now. AIDS shouldn’t be a taboo any more.

    Cost of these medications remain an issue. Thanks Naveen for highlighting this issue so we can think of ways to get funding for treatment in Pakistan. It’s unfortunate that ministry of health no longer considers it an issue for Pakistan. I’m sure there are many people who have the disease but they are still undiagnosed.

  4. 4 sehrish

    i think the work panos is doing is fantastic. a few years ago i reported on people living with HIV/AIDs for panos. heres the link to my story..

  5. 5 Sahar

    Dear Naveen,
    a very big THANK YOU for putting this up on your blog. A big hello to Afia and Sehrish as well (sehrish, are you still writing?).


  6. 6 Faisal Kapadia

    A great topic and issue to highlight, we seem to have taken it upon ourselves to blame everything that is ill in the household on its women.

    Here is to breaking more barriers…we should try to raise money for these medicines.

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