Being HIV-positive

Ed. Note: Aleefia Somji is a member of "Wake Up Pune."

Many of you may have seen me with a big black T-shirt screaming the words "HIV-POSITIVE" on it. Some of you have given me dirty looks and others have exclaimed, "But Aleefia, you’re not HIV-positive!" "No? Maybe I am. What does an HIV-positive person look like?" "Oh, they must be a slum dweller, or they’re definitely a slut." And there we have it: the stigma and discrimination that surrounds HIV/AIDS. In many places people are still unaware that there are four stages of HIV; AIDS is the fourth and fatal. Today, you can live with HIV. I had dinner with a 42-year old man who was HIV-positive, married and had four children-all HIV-negative. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) has deemed HIV a chronic condition, much like diabetes. Sadly enough this is not the case in India. Stigma kills.

There are numerous articles where families have been excommunicated and considered "untouchable." There are cases where children who are HIV-positive are blamed for their parents’ actions. They are often punished, and in some cases even burned. This does not have to be the case. So Wake Up Pune was founded.

Wake Up Pune ( is an organization comprised of non-governmental organizations, companies and interested individuals working to create awareness and reduce stigma and discrimination surrounding HIV/AIDS.

Aleefia Somji, for Mount Holyoke News

Wake Up Pune was initially designed as a one-month campaign in Nov. 2006, but is now a movement across Pune, one of Maharashtra, India’s top two HIV-prevalent cities. Wake Up Pune targets mainly the middle and upper classes through HIV workshops held at companies and schools, street theatre performances, HIV-themed dances, music competitions and HIV boot camps which train youth to take the lead and carry out their own projects. One of their most recent campaigns launched on May 18, 2008, at the beginning of Global AIDS Action Week, was the "HIV-Positive" campaign, whose goal is to make Pune an "HIV-Positive" city. The campaign has three main focus areas: educating oneself and others about HIV and AIDS, raising awareness in one’s community and reaching out to people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS.

Now you know the story behind the "HIV-Positive" T-shirt. Why do I wear an "HIV -Positive" T-shirt? For two main reasons: those of you that come up to me and ask a question or make a comment, and those that stare and give dirty looks. When someone approaches me, I am given the opportunity to inform them about the real facts of HIV/AIDS. Many people however, will stare, and this helps to destroy stereotypes concerning HIV/AIDS-that HIV-positive individuals must be slum dwellers, sluts or starving children in Africa-and encourages the realization that HIV-positive individuals look no different from you and me.

And so, whenever you see me wearing that T-shirt, come ask me a question and if possible, tell me about your initial reaction. Remember, HIV doesn’t discriminate. We do. HIV does not care for caste, age, creed, race, gender, religion, economic background, culture and so on. It affects individuals across the board. So, next time you find out that someone is HIV-positive, stop and think twice before passing judgment, because you never know the circumstance under which that individual contracted the virus.

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