It’s hard to believe, but the rate of HIV infection in Europe and North America is rising once more. Apparently, some people think having HIV is like treating cholesterol – it’s not a big deal, you just pop a pill each day, and carry on as before. This magical thinking ignores the toll the infection takes on a person’s health and well-being – not to mention the devastation that AIDS has inflicted on entire societies.
At Network for Africa, we witness this devastation every day. For years we have been providing counselling to people in northern Uganda living with HIV, often due to rape. Just getting tested requires courage; and until we started providing support at the local clinic, people had only five minutes with the nurse when they were given the results. No wonder many patients thought they had been handed a death sentence. Happily, we have been giving psychological support and practical help as people adjust to their condition.
We have also seen how social stigma leads to depression and stress. As if this isn’t bad enough, the cocktail of drugs needed to battle HIV often makes people feel unwell, weak and without any appetite. In a society without a welfare safety net, any day you don’t feel well enough to work is a day when you can’t feed your family.
Because the need is so great, Network for Africa is expanding our psychotherapy training and our support services to a wider community in northern Uganda. The people we will reach are survivors of rape and abduction by the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA); and many of them are HIV+.
In preparation, we are conducting a needs assessment, interviewing people to see how best we can help. Each survivor’s story is humbling and unique, but a terrible pattern emerges: in a society torn apart by conflict, the trauma touches all aspects of life. It leads to alcoholism and domestic violence, which in turn increases the incidence of rape and HIV infection.
People who were abducted and forced to be child soldiers have trouble sleeping for years afterwards. Many consider suicide, but they keep going for the sake of their children. In the case of Margaret, a 48-year-old woman, she cares for 25 children, ‘inherited’ from her brothers, all of whom were killed by the LRA. Several women told us they regularly run out into the bush and sleep there on the nights when their husbands return drunk. They feel trapped, with nowhere else to go, and few options.
However, there is also a hopeful pattern to their testimonies. None of the survivors we have met consider their situations hopeless. They are all asking us for psychological counselling so they can manage their post-traumatic stress; and for training so they can earn money from a skill. In other words, they know the solution to their problems lies in their own hands, and they are willing to work to improve their family’s future prospects.
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