Photo © Meri Hyöky / Text by Leila Hall
In 2006, at the age of 16, Lerato Thoahlane was diagnosed HIV positive. She felt frightened and unsure, and for many months told nobody about her status.
“I didn’t really know what HIV was, or what it was doing to me. I thought to myself: Am I going to die? After some time, I told my mother and my grandmother. They were shocked and angry at first, but they supported me.”
In 2007, Thoahlane began volunteering with Kick4Life, a Lesotho-based NGO that promotes awareness about HIV/AIDS and encourages young people to get tested. Slowly, she began to disclose her status to her colleagues, and then to the general public.
“I spoke about my status and my experience at testing events. I said to myself: I can do this, it’s time that I did this. People listened to me, and understood that it’s a good thing to know your status. It encouraged a lot of people to get tested.”
Thoahlane now works as a clinical assistant in Butha-Buthe. The focus of her job is to support and mentor HIV positive youth.
“Many young people who are HIV positive ask themselves: why did this happen? Some were infected at birth, and some were infected when they were helping their sick parents. They often struggle to accept themselves and their status. I share my story with them, and I encourage them. I tell them that they are in control of their lives, as long as they faithfully take their medication and attend their check-ups.”
In 2010, Thoahlane fell pregnant. She was immediately put onto antiretroviral treatment, and in 2011 she gave birth to two healthy baby girls.
“They’re both negative,” she says with a smile. “I received a lot of support during my pregnancy, so I wasn’t worried. A lot of people who are diagnosed HIV positive feel frightened about their future. They think to themselves: my kids are going to be affected, I’m not going to get married, I’m not going to have a good life.”
“My message to other women is that living with HIV is not as bad as people say it is. Nowadays, you can live a normal life with HIV, as long as you are honest with yourself, and as long as you seek help. You can start a family just like anybody else. If you know your status and you follow the right steps, you won’t infect your child.”
“I would like to see a change in attitudes towards HIV in Lesotho. There is still a lot of ignorance and stigma. In rural villages especially, many people still think of HIV as a death sentence. This isn’t true. HIV positive people can live for a very long time, as long as they take their medication. A person who is HIV positive is the same as anyone else. It’s just a virus, it doesn’t define who you are.”