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PAPUA NEW GUINEA: A helping hand for people living with HIV

Photo: Obinna Anyadike/IRIN
Paul Ari: "They find hope in me, they find peace, they find love"
Mount Hagen, 2 January 2009 (PlusNews) - In a small commune on a patch of wasteland next to the waterworks in Mount Hagen, the capital of Papua New Guinea's (PNG) Western Highlands Province, Paul Ari provides shelter to people living with HIV and AIDS who fear rejection by their families.

They stay until they feel ready to go home, with visits by relatives encouraged, to help them understand that HIV is not a badge of shame or a health hazard to the community.

Ari receives next to no financial support and the facilities are basic. Women and older married men share a traditional raffia hut, with an open hearth in the middle of the floor, and a leaky roof. Younger men have their own smaller place, and at the back of the property Ari has his own mud-brick home.

A secluded garden or "contemplation centre" provides the spiritual focus for the commune while neat rows of vegetables and a small piggery help generate the cash to care for the 14 people currently staying there.

Spiritual healing

Ari trained for the priesthood but said he quit because he wanted to make a more direct humanitarian impact. Working in a hotel, and doing tailoring jobs at night, he managed to save enough money to make a down payment on the land for the commune, although he still owes US$2,700.

''I've seen a lot of people getting sick and suffering and I wanted to help; I want the community to help''
"I've seen a lot of people getting sick and suffering and I wanted to help; I want the community to help so that [my clients] can have a normal life," Ari told IRIN/PlusNews. "They find hope in me, they find peace, they find love, they find all these things they need are here."

People learn about the commune through word-of-mouth, to the extent that even health facilities in Mount Hagen only found out about its existence relatively recently. Agnes Mek, the head of the Rebiamul HIV clinic, is now one of Ari's biggest fans.

"People are drawn to Paul's place because they want spiritual help as well as psychological help. They develop a relationship of togetherness," she explained.

Just over 2 percent of PNG’s population of 6 million are estimated to be living with HIV, but prevalence is projected to climb to more than 5 percent by 2012, with over two-thirds of the cases in rural areas. 

Self help

Ari wants families to take "ownership" of his clients before he encourages them to head home. "I show [family members] there's no way they can get the virus; I share with them [the people in the commune], eat with them, so the relatives really understand." 

Dorothy Elijah, 20, took an HIV test a month after her husband, a Mount Hagen coffee trader, died in January 2008. She found she was positive and has been recuperating with Ari since falling sick a month ago, but intends to move back home with her parents when she recovers. "They don't say anything [negative about my status]," she told IRIN/PlusNews.

Photo: UNDP
Helen Samilo, one of the first people to go public with her status
According to a 2007 Asia Development Bank-funded study of the HIV situation in PNG, "Stories continue to circulate of shunning, deserting, and even killing people who have HIV." It added, however, "Where concentrated effort has been made to educate families and villages, the results are often positive, i.e., people do take care of their relatives, and living with HIV is less of a burden."

True Warriors is a 300-member organisation of HIV-positive people in Mount Hagen. Vice-president Steven Taka believes that being open about their status has helped reduce the stigma members face. "We've come out publicly to break the stigma and discrimination," he said.

But Helen Samilo, one of the first people in PNG to publicly announce her HIV status, said there were other hurdles HIV-positive people needed to overcome: one of the hardest being a debilitating lack of self-esteem.

"People still have this misunderstanding around HIV, that people [living with the virus] can't do anything for themselves; it makes people very dependent on the organisations that provide for them," she told IRIN/PlusNews.

Despite legislation aimed at protecting the rights of HIV-positive people, "only the component concerned with deliberate transmission has received any attention", the Asia Development Bank study pointed out.

Samilo wants more empowering policies, to create the workplace conditions that would encourage people to stay in their jobs, or build new skills that would allow them to be productive and self-reliant.

"People show sympathy, [but] they don't show empathy in PNG culture,” she said. “[HIV-positive people] need to be shown more empathy, so they can be empowered to do something on their own, for themselves."


See also, PAPUA NEW GUINEA: Epidemic grows as funding falls

Theme (s): Care/Treatment - PlusNews, HIV/AIDS (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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