In-depth: Love in the time of HIV/AIDS

CAMEROON: In search of a positive soul mate

Photo: IRIN
It's not easy to find a man - positive or not.
Douala, 25 June 2008 (PlusNews) - When Clémentine Banzoat, 41, a mother of two, learnt she was HIV positive nine years ago, she not only lost her partner, the father of her second child, but also her job. After several failed relationships with HIV-negative men, she decided to look for an HIV-positive partner to form a family.

"I am interested in HIV-positive [men], whether they are on treatment or not, but they must be [in] good shape and ambitious like me," she told IRIN/PlusNews. "It isn't easy to find one."

She admitted she was afraid of spending the rest of her life alone. "When there's two of you it's always much easier to face the illness and share your fears."

Like Banzoat, many people living with HIV have trouble finding the perfect partner, prompting the Littoral Province branch of the Society for Women and AIDS in Africa (SWAA) a non-governmental organisation that assists HIV-positive women, to set up a dating service three months ago.

Frédéric Alone, who runs the programme, said they had received "constant and increasing requests from the sick people that we monitor" to set up the service.

One of the programme's coordinators, Nadège Yawé, a psychosocial advisor, had already begun matchmaking. "What I am most proud of is that six months ago I managed to get two couples together," she said.

Although one couple didn't last very long as a result of financial problems, the second couple she introduced is on a more solid footing. "The two of them are really blooming and they also plan to formalise their relationship," said Yawé.

Although still in its early stages, the dating service has already registered more than 20 people living with HIV, most of whom are women. "This is not at all surprising because, on the one hand, there are more HIV positive women than men in Cameroon, and on the other, male patients on the whole don't like making themselves known," said Yawé.

Matchmaker make me a match

Advertisements are placed in a meeting book, and when two profiles match up the agency invites the two people for a first meeting. If they get along, the agency monitors the progress of the relationship.

"Our involvement is limited to advice, particularly on the use of condoms during sexual relations, and on the precautions to take if the couple want to have a baby," Yawé said.

Couples who would like to have a baby are recommended to "consider modern procreation methods [like sperm-washing], or to go on treatment and only have unprotected sex during the fertilisation period", explained Dr Madelaine Mbanguè, coordinator of the HIV/AIDS unit at the Laquintinie hospital in Douala, a large commercial port in Cameroon.

Photo: Reinnier Kaze/IRIN
Clémentine Banzoat, 41, mother of two, is looking for love
SWAA Littoral is not the only organisation encouraging people living with HIV to meet each other. The major benefit is that people living with the virus avoid the risk of rejection, and the stigma and discrimination they might encounter from a negative partner, said psychologist Guy Bertrand Tengpé.

"Being rejected by their partner, and stigmatisation or discrimination by those around them, creates psychological problems ... [which can] lead to depression," he said. The person risks "losing all will to continue with the treatment and develops habits to compensate, such as alcoholism, cigarettes or drug abuse, which damage their health."

Grass not always greener

However, finding a partner with the same HIV status does not guarantee a good relationship. Clémentine Banzaot recently experienced this when she separated from her partner eight months after they got together. "I had to put an end to the relationship because my partner was very unfaithful and did not want to have protected sex," she said.

Tengpé also warned that "There is ... a risk of self-marginalisation; [people] who are ... scared of their status being revealed ... [and/or] expect to be stigmatised by others, and [avoid] ... relationships with [HIV negative people] or those who are undiagnosed."

While recognising the "noble intention of such actions" in taking care not to spread the virus, he said he was concerned that this could "contribute to creating or bringing about low self-esteem, a lack of confidence in themselves, and in their ability to develop emotional relationships ... with others, whatever their HIV status."

Lucie Zambou, president of RECAP+, a network of associations for people living with HIV in Cameroon, agreed: "I am not fundamentally opposed to these kinds of relationships, but [they should not], in the long run, bring about two separate worlds, with HIV-positive [people] on one side and those who are HIV negative on the other."

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