Three years ago, photographer Caroline Irby and I went to Haiti to follow a group of poor, uneducated, but feisty and courageous HIV-positive women who were leading the fight against AIDS and its stigma in Cite Soleil and some of the other poor and volatile slums of Port-au-Prince. (Read our piece in the Telegraph Magazine.)
Calling themselves the Delegate Mothers, the women brought medical care, material assistance, psychological support and education to some 250 families affected by HIV/AIDS – including 500 children. They stepped in when foreign aid workers were forced to flee the country in 2004 and Haitians from outside the slums wouldn’t venture there. They volunteered for Rainbow House, a local support centre for people with HIV or AIDS, backed by Plan International, a children humanitarian charity.
Most people in Haiti, especially in the countryside, believe AIDS is caused by a curse, so they shun HIV-positive people for fear of attracting the evil eye on to themselves. If infected, they believe that only a voodoo priest can help them.
The general situation in Haiti was already pretty desperate when we were there, but now six months after the January 12 earthquake that killed more than 210,000 people and injured up to 300,000, it is a living hell. Over 1.5 million people are still surviving in tents. The infrastructure, already very poor, is still heavily damaged (including water, electricity, health services and roads), the risk of crime - looting, kidnapping and gun violence - is high and the security situation is extremely volatile.
Insecurity, overcrowding, sexual violence and lack of sanitary facilities are making life in the camps a misery, especially for women and girls. But for the Delegate Mothers and people with HIV, there is an extra challenge. Bigotry and fear of HIV have forced the Delegate Mothers and their families and other people with HIV/AIDS out of camps and some are now sleeping in front of the rubble that was once were their homes.
“I avoid the camps because there is a lot of discrimination”, says Marie-Lucienne Milotes, a 40-year-old Delegate Mother whom I interviewed in 2007. “People refuse to sleep next to us.”
“Neighbours point their fingers at the children and say, they are from the AIDS family”, says Rosala Persona, a 67-year-old grandmother who looks after eight grandchildren after two of her own children died of AIDS-related causes.
Despite their circumstances, Rosala, Marie-Lucienne and the other Delegate Mothers have been working every day since the earthquake to help other families affected by AIDS in their communities.
With 2.5 to 5% of its population infected, Haiti has the highest number of people living with HIV and AIDS outside sub-Saharan Africa.
Coping with the aftermath of the earthquake is a huge challenge for almost everyone in Port-au-Prince. But for those living with HIV/AIDS, every day is a struggle to survive.
Rosala and Marie Lucienne never doubt for a second that they would continue with their work after the earthquake.
“God has allowed us to survive the earthquake,” says Rosala. “To show our gratitude we will continue to visit the families in our communities.”
I am hoping to return to Haiti in the autumn to meet the Delegate Mothers again for a one-year after the earthquake story.