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HIV: Not a life sentence

Peter Caton

In Zimbabwe, VSO is supporting HIV positive prison inmates to live full and healthy lives after their sentences have been served. Three courageous people living with HIV share their stories and hopes for the future.

When Nyasha*, Arthour and Merencia tested positive for HIV and it seemed that life as they knew it had come to an end.

With all the stigma surrounding the virus, they were unsure if they would be able to lead full and healthy lives and support their families.  

However, when Nyasha's husband, Brian, Arthour and Merencia had been trained by VSO as peer educators, they soon learned that with the right medication, HIV cannot not be passed onto unborn children and sexual partner. They found out they could still lead to a life of love, hope and positivity.  

Having accepted their HIV status, Nyasha, Brian, Arthour and Merencia wanted to share their stories of struggle, acceptance and hope for the future. With the support of VSO, they are getting on in life and keen to help bust the stigmas surrounding HIV for others in the community. 

“My duty is now to be there for my wife.” 

When he was caught stealing cars, Brian, 33, was sentenced to nine years in prison. Leaving his wife at home, Brian carried out his sentence feeling little hope for his future.  

man and woman standing in the distance with their two children. Their faces cannot be seen. Peter Caton

Brian has been a rock to his wife, Nyasha.

When, in 2016, there was an opportunity to be trained by VSO as a peer educator, Brian jumped at the chance to use his prison sentence to gain skills and encourage the education of his fellow inmates.  

“Many inmates have that stigma towards learning, but I have a passion to help and impart knowledge,” said Brian. “I felt that I could be a leader if I get educated as I would impart knowledge in a way they would understand.” 

Brian went through every stage with me. He has been my counsellor.

Nyasha

After finishing his sentence, Brian was finally reunited with his wife, and they gave birth to two young children. However, things were not easy when he found out his wife, Nyasha*, was HIV positive.  

Nyasha remembers: “When I found out about my status, I wanted to kill myself. I thought death was the only way out. I didn't have any knowledge and thought I was dying anyway. 

“But Brian went through every stage with me. He has been my counsellor. The education from him being a peer educator has helped me.” 

a couple sitting together on a sofa, from the back so faces cant be seen Peter Caton

Brian and Nyasha are hopeful for their future.

Brian is proud that he’s been able to support his wife in this way. 

“My duty is to be there for Nyasha, to love her more and show her that there is life after knowing your status. I had to teach and tell her what it really means to be HIV positive. I had to explain that it’s just a condition and doesn’t mean you’re going to die tomorrow,” explained Brian.  

And when their two young children were also tested and found to be HIV negative, Brian was extremely relieved. 

"It's a relief knowing that they will live healthy lives, just like any other child. Being without the worries of my children being stigmatised is just amazing."

“I've learnt that I can still earn a living just like anyone who is not HIV positive.” 

Having been in and out of prison three times, Arthour was losing direction and struggled to cope after learning his HIV status. His misconceptions around life with HIV led to fears that he would be gravely ill and unable to make a living for himself and his three children. 

After becoming a peer educator with VSO, he quickly learnt about what life with HIV really entailed and the importance of educating others like him.  

“I learnt about the importance of adherence to medication and the importance of acceptance and disclosure. As a peer educator I would help others to accept their status so they would live a happy and healthy life,” said Arthour.  

a man on a welding site, talking and educating a group of men Peter Caton

Arthour is educating the community on what it means to be HIV+

On leaving prison, Arthour was supported by VSO to start his own welding business, which he is excited to see grow. He has also continued to share his peer educator skills upon release in order to educate his local community and bust the myths surrounding HIV.  

“There's no stigma against myself or anyone HIV positive. Because I disclosed my status and I'm able to talk freely about my status with anyone and I'm helping others to do the same.” 

“The most important thing I learnt was acceptance.” 

As a repeat offender who had spent a total of nine years in prison, Merencia, 36, knew something had to change. She wanted to turn her life around. 

When Merencia got the opportunity to volunteer as a peer educator in prison, being able to do something meaningful with her time meant she began to feel hopeful about life on the outside.  

a woman with a mannequin and wig, showing others Peter Caton

Merencia plans to open her own salon.

“When I was released, I sat down and started to think and cry about my future. I had skills and knowledge in hairdressing but no inputs. I remembered the work of VSO, so I told them I wanted to start a crime-free life. They gave me the startup capital to do a project in hairdressing.” 

“Hairdressing is good money and I hope to open my own salon one day,” said Merencia.

On finding out her status in prison, Merencia felt little hope for her future. However, it was only when she was trained as a peer educator, that she was able to separate fact from myth.  

“I thought that HIV could be transmitted by sharing spoons and other utensils and that once you are tested positive you will die within seven years. But now because of the training, I know the facts and that I can a live a long and healthy life.” 

"Because of the training, I know the facts and that I can a live a long and healthy life.” 

Merencia

What would she tell others who were worried about their HIV status?  

“I’d say to look at me - I’m a living testimony. I have HIV but I’m working on my hairdressing business and can work just as well as those who are HIV negative.  

“You should get tested, disclose your status, get medication and you will be able to live a strong life - even with HIV.” 

About the project 

The prison population in Zimbabwe is at least twice as likely to have HIV and AIDS compared to the general population. However, because prisons are generally under-funded, they don't typically have the resources to support HIV positive inmates. 

To help combat the HIV and AIDS pandemic, VSO is working with six Zimbabwean prisons, to help improve the quality of life for 21,300 vulnerable prisoners infected or affected by the disease.  
 
So far, we’ve helped to: 

  • Ensure the accurate and timely testing of HIV positive prisoners 

  • Improve treatment and monitoring of affected patients 

  • Trained 169 peer educators 

  • Formed 15 support groups 

  • Trained 156 inmates on entrepreneurship and vocational skills 

*names have been changed in accordance with the wishes of the individuals