Semira’s Story: Giving Up, then Giving Back
Sometimes it takes just one person to help change a community. Semira is a volunteer who was driven to change the stigma attached to HIV infection and speaks from the heart as she helps others overcome the fear of being tested and getting the help they need. Join us in celebrating women's achievement and empowerment as exemplified by Semira's courage, strength and efforts to give back.
Semira Kidane is an inspiration to her village in Ethiopia.
The 35-year-old mother and volunteer Community Resource Person (CRP) walks around with her toddler happily strapped to her back, cheerfully greeting her community, offering a listening ear and guidance to those who need health services—particularly those who think they may be infected with HIV. Her voice is kind and soft-spoken, but she speaks with authority and knowledge. She refers those in need with Project HOPE’s Community Engagement Facilitators (CEFs) who will make sure they receive the proper health treatment and resources.
Inspired by her own fears and community backlash
But Semira’s life hasn’t always been like this. There was a time when she was in hiding, hunkered down in a monastery, afraid to face the world.
When Semira was a young bride, her husband became sick and had to be hospitalized. He wouldn’t tell her what was wrong. And even when she asked others, they seemed evasive. But she was relentless, continuing to ask questions at the hospital until his diagnosis was finally revealed: he was HIV positive.
Feeling betrayed, and worried about her own health, she was tested. Her diagnosis: HIV positive. She was devastated.
Panicked, she did the only thing she could think of at the time. She fled to a monastery—where she knew she could hide from the shame that an HIV diagnosis brings. She also knew she would be sheltered, fed, safe.
But she wouldn’t be treated for the virus. And she wouldn’t have contact with a family who loved her.
Her family convinced her to come home and helped her to begin the antiretroviral treatments (ART) that would keep her viral count down and her body strong.
She divorced her first husband and remarried. Her second husband Palus is also HIV positive. Both were honest with each other about their diagnoses before they got married. Together, Semira and Palus have 2-year-old Kidist. With their knowledge of their HIV status, precautions were taken and Kidist is not HIV positive.
Stigma around HIV remains, but with education is decreasing
The stigma continued. Semira says that her neighbors suspected that she was HIV positive because they saw that she was getting financial support from the government.
Whether real or imagined, she felt like they stared at her, so she began to cover herself whenever she would go out.
She says that even her landlord was resentful and told her, “You’re taking money from the government; you’re going to get fat and lazy letting them support you.”
She has since moved into a different house.
But it was Semira’s experience with a Project HOPE CEF and the education and resources provided by USAID’s Community HIV Care and Treatment (CHCT) project implemented by Project HOPE that changed how she felt about herself and convinced her to reach out to others.
Speaking from the heart
“I became a Community Resource Person with Project HOPE because I was a victim,” says Semira. “I didn’t know that my first husband was HIV positive. I don’t want other people to experience this. That’s why I go out to the community—to teach others to be aware.” Since she joined Project HOPE as a volunteer, she has helped test 78 people. Four of them tested positive for HIV and are now on ART.
“I love to see the improvement of people after they get on the medicine and can once again live their day-to-day lives,” she says. CRPs are so important because we are a firsthand example. We’re not just telling them about the virus. We’re showing them ourselves.
“CRPs show our sisters and brothers who have the virus to have hope. When we go to their house, we tell them that we are living with the virus: ‘You can see me living my day-to-day life.’ And then they can say, ‘Oh, if this is the case then I can go on living.’
“We also encourage people who don’t know their status to get tested. Sometimes people just don’t want to know the truth because they think a positive diagnosis is a death sentence. But CRPs show them that there is life after a positive diagnosis – a good life even.”
Semira says that because of programs like this, there is much more education and awareness. She believes that perceptions are changing so that the stigma of living with HIV is not as severe.
“There is a change,” she says. “The stigma is still there, but now it’s not like people are pointing fingers at us anymore.
“And Project HOPE is supporting us. We are volunteers, but whenever we go to the CEF, they are there for us. They come to our house. They give us guidance. They go to homes to test people who are unwilling to go to the hospital. They counsel them about ART. They even give them family planning. We are the volunteers, but we don’t have the health background. Whenever we need anything, Project HOPE is there.”
And Semira’s goal is to be there for others, to be an example to the community by showing them that she is strong – that she has changed her health, her mindset and her life.
“I want people to see that even though I have the virus, I can live the life that I dream of.”