Jamila’s Triumph over HIV and Poverty in Guyana

Jamila’s Triumph over HIV and Poverty in Guyana

In 2006, Jamila, a 24 year old Guyanese waitress, took the opportunity to work in a store overseas with the hope of building a better life for her children. But her dreams were dashed when she arrived in the new country and realized the only job available was as a commercial sex worker. She had no money, nowhere to stay, and no one to turn to, so she became a sex worker to survive.  Jamila eventually earned enough to pay for her airfare back to Guyana, where she had left her children with her grandmother.

After her return to Guyana, she was encouraged by a friend to take an HIV test, but though the test was positive, Jamila did not believe it, as she was healthy at the time.

Jamila sought employment at a local logging company as a plywood grader. However, the challenges of her job eventually took a toll on her health and she repeatedly became ill. She thought her illness was a result of the hard work and sought alternative employment. She eventually found work as a caregiver at Guyana Responsible Parenthood Association (GRPA), one of the organizations supported by the USAID-funded, Management Sciences for Health-led, Guyana HIV/AIDS Reduction Program (GHARP II).

In June of 2008, one of Jamila’s ex-boyfriends visited GRPA for an HIV test and was diagnosed with HIV. He gave Jamila’s name as one of his former partners for GRPA to conduct follow up interventions.

When Jamila’s second HIV test came back positive, she believed the results. The counselors at GRPA had taught her about the disease, and she now understood that even though she was healthy, it was possible for her to be infected.

Jamila received intensive counseling from GRPA, but she had difficulty coping with the news. She was engaged to be married and feared telling her partner, Mark. She began drinking heavily and walked aimlessly around for a full day. She said, “I stood up on the highway next to a television station for several long hours and I cried and cried and then I made up my mind that I had to disclose my status to my fiancé.”

The counselor at GRPA counseled Jamila on the best disclosure approaches and she decided to meet with Mark and his mother.  Mark reacted violently, as he was scared that he may have contracted HIV from Jamila. His mother, however, was supportive and has stood by her side ever since. Jamila now receives HIV treatment and care at GRPA, where she continues to work as a caregiver.

Jamila and Mark, who remains HIV negative, are now married. Jamila participated in a series of economic empowerment programs run by GRPA, where she gained skills in sewing, cake decorating, and floral arrangements. She has opened her own business selling groceries, garments, and floral arrangements, and her family is now economically stable. “I now feel empowered; as if nothing is impossible, and I am within reach of the life I always dreamed of,” said Jamila.

Mala Persaud, M.A., is Health Systems Manager at the USAID-funded, Management Sciences for Health-led, Guyana HIV/AIDS Reduction Program (GHARP II).