“I touch people’s lives, People touch my life" ~ Shukria Gul
Shukria Gul was found HIV positive in 1995. Since then she has been working with the People Living With HIV/AIDS (PLWHAs) in Pakistan. Thirty five year old Shukria Gul is currently the general secretary of Pak plus Society, which is working very closely with the PLWHAs. She came to Sri Lanka recently for the second time, to attend a regional workshop on HIV/AIDS, which was held in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
A courageous woman, who is coming from a conservative community, shared her thoughts and feelings with me. The following are the excerpts of the interview:-
What made you to come forward and work with the society?
“My husband worked in South Africa. He got infected through contaminated blood, when he met with a car accident there. He fell ill in 1995 in Pakistan. He was thrown out of the hospital room bed to a store room in the same hospital. He was tested for HIV thereafter, and found positive and he had full blown AIDS at that time. He told me that, if he is found positive he will shoot himself. (She cries). But unfortunately he passed away, before the results came. Thereafter I checked myself and found positive. I suffered double crisis. I was very worried about my children. He doctor asked me why I was worried about my children, and not about myself. I told him that, my children have to live long. I thank God, they were not positive.
At that time my daughter was four year old, and my son was two year old. I had to take the family burden and move forward, amidst stigma and discrimination. I had gone through enough and more discrimination at several stages. But my family was very supportive, although the were not very well informed about the disease.
I can recollect an incident, which took place earlier. I participated in a workshop in Peshawar, where there was a Mullah mentioned that “All the HIV positive people should be shot dead”. I did not react immediately. I revealed on the last day that, I was HIV positive, he apologized for making such a painful statement. There were many distasteful incidents like this in my life.
But I did not mind too much about the negative comments passed on to me. I took them as a challenge, and moved forward and started to work with the PLWHAs. It gives me so much relief and comfort.
How do you approach the People Living With HIV/AIDS (PLWHAs)?
Since I am a positive person, they trust and accept me, as one of them. I visit them frequently, and counsel them. It’s easier to approach a positive person through another positive person, rather than an expert. I put myself into his or her shoes and make them talk. I ask only two questions. They are did you get it through a needle?, and did you get it through blood transfusion? If they say no to these two questions. I know that they got infected through sexual relationship. And as a respect towards the positive, I never ask the third question, which is did you get it through sexual relationship? But most of us don’t practice way of asking question. Therefore the PLWHAs are very reluctant to come out and talk.
And I always maintain their privacy. Initially people were misinterpreted regarding HIV/AIDS. Even I gave all the wrong answers to the questions, when I was interviewed in 1995. Because at that time I did not know what is HIV/AIDS or how can it be infected or what are the consequences. But now I am very well informed, and sharing the information with others. Because after I got infected I went to Islamabad and got all the possible information available about HIV/AIDS and set up a non-governmental organization called “New Light”. Now I am fully aware, and I make others aware about the disease. I am grateful to Mr. aleem Beigh, who educated me a lot on HIV.
Later I moved to work with a group called “Pak Plus Society”. Now I work with fifty families in Lahore. People of Pakistan welcome me very warmly and whole heartedly into their houses than a consultant. I have been working with the People Living With HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) for the past ten years.
How do you describe the situation of the People Living With HIV/AIDS in Pakistan?
I see people still suffer from the stigma and discrimination. The social stigma is deep rooted in our society. The most the people of Pakistan do not go for voluntary testing.
According to UNAIDS estimates about 70,000 to 80,000 or 0.1 percent of the adult population in Pakistan are infected with HIV. But officially reported are much lower as 3,000 until 2004. Although overall HIV prevalence is low in Pakistan, there is growing evidence of substantial high risk groups, which contribute to the disease.
When a person if found HIV positive, I slowly counsel his or her family. Then they begin to accept and care. People’s attitudes are slowly changing. I believe that, we can change the whole community gradually.
What is your dream?
I wanted to become a doctor. But I could not make it happen. But the Almighty God has chosen me to serve the society. I will continue to serve till I depart. I told my two children that I am HIV positive. They are very understanding and loving. They come with me to visit the People Living With HIV/AIDS (PLWHAs). I am very fortunate to have them. I want to educate them, and make them shine like stars.
I got married, when I was just twenty year old, but I do not want my daughter to marry early. I want her to study further, and come up in life.
I was motivated to combat ignorance about the disease. I want the other People Living With HIV/AIDS (PLWHAs) to join hands, and work together for a HIV free world.
What is your message to the world?
It is not infectious through shaking hands, eating together or hugging.My humble request to the world is to love and respect the People Living With HIV/AIDS (PLWHAs). Do not drive them to death, through stigma and discrimination. My whole details including my home address were published in the media in Pakistan, when my husband died. These details were disclosed to the media by the hospital officials. The whole media stormed my house, while I was grieving. (Tears in her eyes).Do not repeat the same to my fellow People Living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHAs). They are human beings as well. Please accept and adore them. I am affected in my heart, than my body. I still love my husband. And I have been living for more than a decade, because people pray for me to live long.
Please log onto the following link to listen to a song, which was dedicated to Shukria Gul.