It was all doom and gloom when Baby Rovina Nasution had to deal with two major blows in her life – she was tested positive for HIV and lost her job as a migrant worker in Malaysia – at the same time.
“I thought it’s better for me to just die,” she said.
It was 2003 and she did not know where to look for help or find information.
“People didn’t know or had even heard of HIV. I was confused too. I was not sure whether HIV similar to AIDS,” she said. “I was just told it’s a dirty, scary and deadly disease.”
The Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and it attacks the immune system, which can initially fight against the virus but in the end – usually after 10 years or more – surrenders.
In Indonesia, the first “official” AIDS case was announced in April 1987, when a 44-year-old Dutch tourist in Bali died of the disease. But there had been reports that suspected that the virus had been around in the country much earlier.
Baby attributed her disease to her previous drug addiction and her habit of sharing needles.
Coming from a broken home, she had her first taste of alcohol at the age of 11 and married her high school lover at the age of 18. Divorced, she turned to drugs – and passed her the habit along to her youngest sister, who was the first to become HIV positive in her family.
Afraid of her uncontrolled addiction, she decided to move abroad but with no money in her pocket, she determined to become a migrant worker in Malaysia. “My plan was that the job would help me stay clean and earn income,” said the 45-year-old.
Her life took a different twist when she tested HIV-positive during a health checkup for the renewal of her contract. She was deported home.
“I’d been clean for a year and still tested positive. I should have just died,” she says. “I didn’t know I can get infected by the virus through sharing needles.”
Returning to her hometown in the North Sumatran capital of Medan, she did not know what to do, and she was afraid to work, since due to her limited knowledge, she thought she could die any day.
After a year of living in confusion, she finally found a group which supported HIV-positive people. Together, they shared stories, read books on HIV/AIDS and more.
“I learned so much, and the stigma and discriminations we faced out there motivated me to find the real roots of the problem,” says Baby, who has found love with another HIV-positive man. The two got married in 2006 and have two children, both HIV-negative.
With her new-found inspiration, she focused on HIV/AIDS campaigns, setting up support groups and learning about available treatments while motivating people living with HIV/AIDS.
She was also trusted to respond to HIV/AIDS in post-tsunami Aceh by forming the Medan Aceh Partnership, an organization concerned with building public awareness about HIV/AIDS, in 2006.
After completing her job in Aceh in 2010, she helped set up the Indonesia Positive Women Association (IPPI), the first national network for women living with HIV/AIDS in Indonesia.
“When I found out I was HIV-positive, I was upset, thinking ‘why me’. And I was sad, feeling so alone. With time, I don’t feel lonely anymore. I want to help those who are not as lucky as me,” said the woman, who is now IPPI’s national coordinator.
“I was deported home, yes, but there are many [HIV-positive] women out there who are abused and those who get infected due to a lack of information, unaware of their legal protections. These issues motivate me in my work.”
Another HIV-positive, “Wisnu”, not his real name, was reluctant to come out in the open after being tested positive for the virus early last year.
“Do you know? I am gay, yes,” whispered the 41-year-old former bank employee, who had resigned from his job and now works as a freelance bank salesman.
But the information was not for everyone.
“How can I tell people that I am HIV-positive? From what I see around me, people are more accepting of HIV-positive people who got the virus from sharing needles when using drugs,” he said.
“Even at the hospital, the nurses give me ‘the look’. We’re still discriminated against. HIV-positive people, who happen to be gay, are sidelined.”
In reality, heterosexual transmissions accounted for 71 percent of new HIV/AIDS cases, followed by intravenous drug use at 18.7 percent, according to the Health Ministry.
For Wisnu, HIV was just another word until the problem hit home – he was diagnosed with herpes on his right foot which left him almost paralyzed.
“I thought it was just another skin problem and sought treatment from a physician. The doctor immediately diagnosed it as herpes. But even after taking the medication for three weeks, the amount of time it supposed to take to heal, I was still sick,” says Wisnu.
He came back for treatments but in the back of his mind, he kept on thinking about what the doctor said — that he has a weak immune system.
Curious, he started to ask around for a disease with such symptoms until a friend, who worked at a health foundation, advised him to take blood test. When the results came out, he felt like the sky had collapsed on him.
“I felt weak all over, like I had no bones left in my body. I cried. It’s like the end of the world for me,” said the man, who contributed his lifestyle — after being left by his former partner abroad — for contracting the virus.
Faced with the reality, and following his ex-partner’s advice to watch his health, Wisnu decided to straighten out his life and is now active in support groups to assist other people living with the virus.
“One of them is only 19 years old. I can’t help feeling sad — he’s still got a long way to go, only half my age,” he says.
“By joining the group, I want to encourage them. I heard from my ex-partner that there are people living with AIDS who live long, healthy years. And I think it’s very important to prepare people living with the virus psychologically and mentally to give them the strength.”
Going to church now for him is no longer the routine it used to be.
“Now, I am doing it with all of my heart and I do believe in miracles,” he said. “I pray that I can live to 100 years old.”
— Stevie Emilia