HIV: mixed-sta­tus couple speak out

At­tack­ing stig­mas and ed­u­cat­ing the pub­lic help oth­ers cope in their re­la­tion­ships

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - NEWS - AYANDA MKHWANAZI

FALL­ING in love is easy; be­ing in a re­la­tion­ship with some­one who is HIV-pos­i­tive is harder.

Di­makatso Mookodi and her hus­band, Kabo, are proof that be­ing in a mixed-sta­tus re­la­tion­ship can work, if there is open com­mu­ni­ca­tion and care­ful man­age­ment of their sex­ual re­la­tion­ship.

It was 13 years ago that Di­makatso, then a 22-year-old drama stu­dent, dis­cov­ered she was HIV-pos­i­tive.

It came as a blow but, as an ex­tro­vert, she did not have a prob­lem dis­clos­ing her sta­tus.

She says her prayer to find the right part­ner was an­swered in 2009 when she met Kabo, who was born in Botswana.

He is HIV-neg­a­tive and the two fell in love.

Start­ing a sex­ual re­la­tion­ship with the man who would be­come her hus­band wasn’t the eas­i­est thing to do, Di­makatso says.

They have been mar­ried for three years and live in Klip­town, Soweto.

Di­makatso says: “I can get stressed and frus­trated and im­me­di­ately it af­fects the mood in the house.

“It af­fects our in­ti­macy. Some­times we stay for a week with­out sex.”

Di­makatso says sex­ual in­ti­macy can also cause her stress, be­cause she’s afraid she may in­fect her hus­band, al­though they prac­tise safe sex.

“I worry about wak­ing up one day and hear­ing my hus­band is HIV-pos­i­tive,” she says.

Kabo says they find ways to make their sex­ual re­la­tion­ship ful­fill­ing.

“We don’t pen­e­trate, but be­lieve me we are very inti- mate and pas­sion­ate,” the 41year-old chuck­les.

“Love­mak­ing is also about a con­nec­tion with your part­ner.”

Di­makatso re­mains on an­tiretro­vi­rals (ARVs).

The treat­ment can bring the vi­ral load down to an un­de­tectable level, mean­ing the chance of her trans­mit­ting the virus is sig­nif­i­cantly re­duced.

The couple of­ten take part in church events, where they talk openly about their re­la­tion­ship to ed­u­cate peo­ple.

“At one church meet­ing, a lady couldn’t hide her shock af­ter I an­nounced that we are mar­ried,” says Di­makatso, 35.

“I asked her to stand up and ex­plain her re­ac­tion. Some­times it is hard to be­lieve there are peo­ple who re­act in this way.”

Kabo says al­though the couple are aware the stigma per­sists, in most cases peo­ple are wel­com­ing.

“My friends don’t re­act with shock, they are open to the idea,” he says. “That is why em­pow­er­ing your­self with the right in­for­ma­tion is vi­tal.”

Di­makatso ac­knowl­edges it’s not al­ways a walk in the park. When she is ill pe­ri­od­i­cally, for ex­am­ple, it takes an emo­tional toll on the couple’s mar­riage and fam­ily life, she says.

An an­nual cer­vi­cal test more than two years ago found she had pre-can­cer­ous cells.

Stud­ies have found HIV-pos­i­tive women are at a higher risk of de­vel­op­ing cer­vi­cal can­cer.

Di­makatso was ad­vised to start a fam­ily as soon as pos­si­ble.

Af­ter coun­selling and be­ing given the med­i­cal as­sur­ance that her vi­ral load was unde- tectable, she fell preg­nant.

The couple have a healthy boy of 18 months.

With World Aids Day on Tues­day, the couple hope more peo­ple in mixed-sta­tus re­la­tion­ships will speak up.

Psy­chi­a­trist Si­bongile Mashapu has coun­selled a num­ber of cou­ples in mixed- sta­tus re­la­tion­ships who bat­tle de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety. She says: “There is a fear of con­tract­ing or trans­mit­ting the virus.

“There are con­cerns about bear­ing chil­dren, car­ing for the in­fected part­ner or an­tic­i­pated grief.

“Long-term con­dom use is some­times viewed by oth­ers as an un­re­al­is­tic al­ter­na­tive.

“Con­doms are con­sid­ered in­con­ve­nient, un­com­fort­able and in­con­sis­tent with the de­sire to have chil­dren.”

Mashapu says the num­ber of mixed-sta­tus re­la­tion­ships is likely to in­crease, thanks to ARVs, so the ap­proach to coun­selling will need to change.

“HIV- re­lated coun­selling in­ter­ven­tion fo­cuses on the in­di­vid­ual at risk. But the sex­ual trans­mis­sion of HIV fre­quently oc­curs in the pri­mary re­la­tion­ship. My ap­proach is to fo­cus on the couple as a unit.”

The Mookodis hope their story will en­cour­age other cou­ples deal­ing with HIV. They also hope the stig­ma­ti­sa­tion of re­la­tion­ships like theirs will end. Equally, they would like to see a change in the way peo­ple lead their lives.

“We live in a se­cre­tive world, we wear masks, peo­ple are dy­ing be­cause of stigma – but God gave us each other,” says Di­makatso.

PIC­TURE : NHLANHLA PHILLIPS

HAPPY FAM­ILY: Di­makatso and Kabo Mookodi have an 18-month-old son.

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