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An indomitable spirit in the fight against AIDS in DRC

March 01, 2012

At a military hospital in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the HIV Counseling and Testing Center established a support group for persons living with HIV or AIDS (PLWHA), called the Post-Test Club. The group has four objectives: 1) to provide psychosocial support and counseling to Post-Test Club members living with HIV or AIDS, 2) to provide at-home follow-up care to PLWHA who are bedridden, 3) to disseminate the Rights and Duties of PLWHA and Armed Forces Personnel and 4) to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS in the local community.

The Post-Test Club is led by Lieutenant C.,* who received training in peer education and counseling and testing. In addition to working at the center as a counselor, Lieutenant C. raises awareness about HIV/AIDS and serves as a resource for psychosocial support when she is in the community. She is involved in all facets of the response to HIV/AIDS among the military population where she is stationed. Following is Lieutenant C.’s story, told in her own words.

The story of Lieutenant C.: “My struggle”

My previous life

My name is Lieutenant C. I am married and the mother of five children, all of whom are alive and in good health.

I became interested in military service and enlisted in the Zairian Armed Forces. After my training, I was one of very few female military personnel to be sent to the front lines. There, I was taken in an ambush by the “Interahamwes” (Rwandan forces who fled to the DRC in 2004). I was captured and raped for more than five hours by nine Interahamwe militiamen. I was found unconscious and sent to a health center where I regained consciousness seven days later.

The aftereffects of this abuse would be long lasting. Eighteen months later, I began a new fight for my life when I tested positive for HIV. I was put on cotrimoxazole prophylaxis for four years. My health had deteriorated. I weighed 32 kg (70.5 lbs.) and had a CD4 count below 150/mm3. My extended family rejected me, but my husband — also in the army — remained with me and continues to support me. During this time, I received nutritional training for PLWHA. Although I was eligible for antiretroviral (ARV) treatment, these drugs were not available in this area of the country, so I was not able to receive this treatment.

I requested a transfer to another province, in order to escape the stigma and discrimination my immediate family and I suffered. My husband was also able to obtain a transfer. That same year, I was placed on ARVs and assigned to serve with the military health service. By 2008, I had fully recovered. I weighed 48 kg (106 lbs.) and my CD4 count was 380/mm3.

My second life: the fight

Today, I live my life in a positive manner and want to be fully involved in HIV/AIDS control and prevention efforts in my community.

FHI 360, through its project with the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), opened a center in 2007 for HIV counseling and testing (C&T) at a local military hospital. I was one of several persons recruited to lead a Post-Test Club being organized to provide counseling to people living with HIV or AIDS (PLWHA) who tested at the center. I was definitely interested and agreed to lead the club and share my personal experience with HIV — not only the sad things that happened, but also the moments of happiness my husband and children have given me through their support.

Because of my fighting spirit, FHI 360 initially trained me to serve as a peer educator with PSI’s Family Health Association (ASF/PSI) and later as a counselor at the C&T center. I continue to serve as a resource person at the C&T center and do my part to fight this disease. I also contribute to various new initiatives being launched, such as:

  • Outreach efforts, particularly among female military personnel and among children and military spouses
  • Psychosocial support through the Post-Test Club for PLWHA tested at the center
  • Counseling of clients receiving services at the C&T center
  • Nutritional counseling for PLWHA
  • Home visits to PLWHA who have not returned for follow-up

I no longer live a clandestine existence, hiding my illness, and have spoken openly on various occasions about my HIV status and my fight against this disease.

*Name and some characteristics have been changed.