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ETHIOPIA: Real-life drama

Photo: Anthony Mitchell/IRIN
Many Ethiopians prefer to keep their HIV status hidden for fear of isolation
ADDIS ABABA, 12 March 2010 (PlusNews) - On stage in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, Mestihet Temane, 27, enacts the story of how, after the death of her parents, a young woman winds up alone on the streets with no money, no confidence and no support.

"Sometimes I cry when I'm singing and so do a lot of the people listening," she told IRIN/PlusNews.

Mestihet is a member of Mekdim Ethiopia National Association, a local NGO that performs HIV-related dramas at offices, colleges and community centres. The drama and music club members who put on the plays are a mixture of orphans and people living with HIV - their harrowing stories of abandonment and discrimination are often semi-autobiographical.

Despite public attempts to tackle the subject of HIV, the status of many of Mekdim's actors is not revealed to audiences; many of them also keep their HIV status secret in their personal lives.

"A colleague said, 'if I knew you had HIV I would not have swapped clothes with you'," Dawit*, a 21-year-old actor said. "Even now there is a problem with HIV and discrimination."

Mickey*, a dancer, says he suffers psychologically when his colleagues discuss the HIV-positive status of other dancers in a derogatory manner; Fatiya*, 17, has kept her infection hidden from her landlord due to fear of eviction.

According to Tilahun Sheko, Mekdim's programme manager, while the plays have significantly increased the number of visitors to the voluntary counselling and testing clinics that accompany the performances, many in Addis, particularly the wealthy, are still "more worried about their reputation than getting treatment".

Alemu Anno Ararso, the director of the multi-sectoral response coordination directorate at the Federal HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Office, said just like the government's "community conversations" - where participants are encouraged to discuss and share their experiences, including traditionally taboo issues - the Mekdim plays were a useful tool in demystifying HIV.

"They tell the stories and how it is transmitted," he said. "They are giving their life experiences; no one can know more than they can."

''A colleague said, 'if I knew you had HIV I would not have swapped clothes with you'''
However, Alemu acknowledged that despite the government's efforts to tackle stigma, the problem persists.

"Ethiopians prefer to keep silent. We don't want to disclose ourselves. If I have a problem, I don't want to talk about it," he added. "That is why the community conversation strategy has been used. They listen to their friends and everything comes out."

Alemu further noted that the issue of stigma affected HIV programming. "We have problems of uptake of services and it revolves around stigma. If you're found to be HIV-positive you will be discriminated against, so people decide not to get tested," he said. "We can understand the effect by proxy; it's all because of discrimination.

A local NGO, Network of Networks of HIV Positives in Ethiopia, is working on a stigma index - due to be completed this year - that will reveal the root causes and extent of stigma in the Horn of Africa nation.

"HIV is everybody's business, so everybody has to talk about it; you can fight HIV by improving knowledge and behaviour," he added.

wd/kr/mw

* Not their real names

Theme (s): Arts/Culture - PlusNews, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), Prevention - PlusNews, PWAs/ASOs - PlusNews, Stigma/Human Rights/Law - PlusNews,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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