When Daw Than Lwin and her husband were diagnosed with HIV in 2000, the discrimination she faced from her family and friends was as heart-breaking as her diagnosis.
Her family distanced themselves from her due to the stigma of the illness, and she nursed her husband on her own until he died in 2003.
‘In rural areas [of Myanmar], people with HIV just give up on life. There is a lack of awareness and services. Even if they know their status they just go back to their village and die,’ she explains.
But that was 14 years ago, and Daw Than Lwin says that today, there is no longer such a strong fear of infection.
‘Before, there was a lot of discrimination but since then a lot has changed. Now people in the community look after people with HIV.’
She has helped to create this change, as a leader of a CARE-supported self-help group for people who are HIV positive.
‘Since taking Anti-Retro Virus medication, my health has improved,’ she says. ‘I like volunteer work because I’m helping people in the same situation as me.’
Daw Than Lwin’s group consists of 13 women and one man. They sew bags, school uniforms and other clothes to sell and the profits are used to support their children’s school fees and healthcare costs. They also support each other and refer patients from outside the group to services.
‘I’m very happy to help people in a similar situation to myself. I can provide for the needs of the members and their children. It’s very satisfying.’
CARE supports the groups with counselling, nutrition and medical support, and training in new skills and support networks to earn an income.
‘If I hadn’t received CARE support I would be poor and depressed. There would be no self-help group,’ she says.
Daw Than Lwin’s family’s attitude has also changed since she has become a group leader.
‘I get more respect from the community. People depend on me. I am encouraged to do more volunteer work.’
Daw Than Lwin’s group does a lot for their community, including supporting and contributing to treatment costs for people with HIV, running a nutrition program for children, providing school supplies and organising sewing training.
‘We want to support other group members who are not able to work, and who are lying in bed, as much as possible. Our aim is for people living with HIV to be healthy and happy.’