By Joy Wanja Muraya
She has a solid sense of confidence that expands within her when she is on a stage. Not just on any platform, but the physical and virtual ones too. The COVID-19 pandemic has neither roughed up her advocacy voice, nor silenced it.
Doreen Moraa Moracha embodies a child’s nature and the nobility of a true warrior whenever she wears her badge as a HIV/ AIDS advocate. She protects her space and confidently speaks for Person’s Living with HIV dedicatedly through her social media platforms. At 13 years old, her parents disclosed to her that she was HIV positive. Her parents are a discordant couple and she had lost a younger brother to HIV complications.
Today as a HIV advocate, she carries a sense of serenity that she wishes everyone could find. In 2015, she went public about her HIV status drawing public attention to a space that she used today to boldly addresses stigma, discrimination and other topical issues related to HIV and AIDS.
“In advocacy, I found an intersection of my passion and a chance to shape positive impacts in a world where we would not be open about HIV,” said Doreen.
Stigma remains one of the biggest barriers preventing people living with HIV from accessing healthcare. Doreen says that though she has not faced outward stigma in adulthood, she remembers that some of her relatives would seclude her utensils and beddings whenever she visited their homes.
She hopes for a better world through her voice.
“We must have the courage to change attitudes like stigma and discrimination,” she said adding that her online campaign marks the beginning of a journey of walking with other young people, every day, to uncomfortable truths.
“I became an advocate for rights of young women living with HIV because the HIV response 40 years later has not closed the tap of new infections among women thereby increasing the burden especially in sub-Saharan Africa where more women are living with HIV than men,” said Doreen, who is also the founder of A Beautiful Story, her advocacy outfit that includes a You Tube Channel.
She also wears multiple hats such being featured by the World Health Organization Regional Office for Africa as a Tea on HIV champion. She is also a member of the Beijing+25 Youth Task Force under UN Women and she was also recently selected to join the Beyond LIVING Life Force by GNP+, which is a global network of people living with HIV, and its partners.
I am HIV positive.
I am not sick.
I am not sad.
I am not dying.
I am just a fabulous host to a tiny virus
Doreen notes that young women living with HIV face stigma, discrimination, intimate & gender- based violence, rejection and widows affected & living with HIV are disinherited.
“This affects women by limiting them from seeking proper care and treatment, tradition is a limiting barrier in HIV treatment & access especially for expectant mothers hoping to give birth to negative children and because women are not socially & economically empowered enough, they some are unable to even start treatment,” Doreen said.
Nelson Otwoma, Chief Executive Officer of NEPHAK, notes that young persons living with HIV are at a higher risk.
“For young people, the stigma is compounded due to the assumption that they are still too young to present with HIV. Those who acquired HIV from sex choose to say they were born with HIV,” said Otwoma. UNAIDS describes stigma as being persistent, insidious and overlapping.
What is stigma ?
UNAIDS defines stigma as the negative beliefs, feelings and attitudes towards people living with HIV, whereas discrimination refers to the unfair and unjust treatment either by act or omission of an individual based on his or her real or perceived HIV status.
The Kenya 2021 PLHIV Stigma Index 2.0 showed that stigma is also experienced in hands of health facility staff and this takes the form of gossip or talking badly of people, disclosure without consent and avoidance.
Other forms of stigma include denial of dental care, physical abuse, advice not to have sex, particularly for women compared to men and verbal abuse (10%). More women than men were advised not to have children due to their HIV status and they were also discouraged from using certain contraceptives due to their HIV status.
According to UNAIDS, all of these forms of stigma and discrimination combine to impede access to HIV services and to reduce medication adherence and retention in care, often leading to poor physical and mental health. The stigma further presents additional barriers to maintaining good health.
A 2020 UNAIDS report titled “Evidence for eliminating HIV-related stigma and discrimination” identifies six environments that can catalyse efforts to reduce stigma and discrimination at various levels in our society today. The report outlines guidelines for countries to implement effective programmes to eliminate stigma in the community, workplace, education, healthcare, justice and emergency areas.
Otwoma notes that the COVID-19 pandemic has also posed significant challenges HIV/Aids prevention and management from the lockdowns and restrictions of movement that have greatly disrupted HIV testing, referrals to care services and HIV treatment.
“The earlier closure of schools and learning institutions, restriction of movement meant that women and girls were stuck with family members who may abuse them and also engage in gender and intimate partner violence,” noted Otwoma.
Allan Maleche executive director KELIN attributes the high levels of stigma and discrimination associated with HIV/AIDS to the fear of contracting a disease that has no cure. However Maleche says that in as much as this fear drives the stigma, there’s need to address stigma and discrimination at all levels of the society.
“Fighting stigma and discrimination is very critical in the fight against HIV/AIDS,” said Maleche.
Maleche adds that young people have taken bold steps to normalize living with HIV by openly talking about their HIV status and taking up the mantle to challenge the violation of their human rights by pursuing legal action at the HIV tribunal. He further noted that HIV support groups where these young people meet have played a great role in breaking the silence.
Whereas nothing in this world has ever been achieved without passion and commitment, Doreen believes her work as a HIV/AIDS advocate is the energy and fire that runs deep through her.
She relives the words of Japanese philanthropist, Masayoshi Son: “Think Big. Think Disruptive. Execute with full passion.”
That’s how she is fighting stigma; No doubt about her passion and commitment.