Honduran Mother Shows Courage in the Face of AIDS
April 21, 2006, Tegucigalpa, Honduras —
Tegucigalpa, Honduras — At 36 years old and pregnant, Angelica Savala's weight loss was shocking.
"All my hair was gone and I had lost 219 pounds," Angelica recounted. "I had to wear a wig and three sets of clothing to boost my size." Deathly ill and separated from her abusive second husband, Angelica depended on her 7-year-old son, Alejandro, for her care.
When she delivered her second son, Daniel, he too fell ill. Angelica finally went into a coma for three months. Without her consent, the hospital tested her for HIV. She was positive. So was Daniel.
Today, at 41 years old, Angelica has made a remarkable recovery. She is the provincial president of the CRS-supported Human Rights Commission on HIV and AIDS and coordinator of a self-help group that provides loans and home visits to people living with HIV, all the while encouraging community support and fighting stigma. And little Daniel is a bouncy 5-year-old who attends a nearby school with his older brother Alejandro.
Both the commission and self–help group are part of the Dignidad project implemented by Catholic Relief Services partner Caritas Hondureña. Through the project, Angelica and Daniel have access to live-saving antiretroviral therapy. And Angelica has obtained a loan, which has enabled her to start a business to support her two sons.
"After I woke up from my coma and was told about my status, I fled from the hospital. I only returned out of concern for my newborn son’s health," Angelica remembers.
Picking up the pieces that her life had become was not easy. In fact, getting antiretroviral therapy for her HIV was the easy part. Angelica was ostracized in a country where — even though it has the highest HIV prevalence in Central America — the stigma of having the disease is equally high.
Angelica had no income, no way to provide for herself or her children. "I heard about the Dignidad project from my hospital," she explained. "I went to Caritas hoping to only get psychological support." Angelica got more than she bargained for. She received counseling, a community that supported her and an economic lifeline.
With her life more or less in order, Angelica set out to use her time to help others who were struggling to come to terms with HIV. As part of the Dignidad HIV-prevention campaign, she openly addressed her own life choices.
"As the president of the provincial human rights commission on HIV, I often share my story during prevention campaigns to encourage people to get tested — and to persuade families to support those infected." Angelica reiterates that she understands the fear people have of getting tested. "Even if one gets [treatment], how will they support their families without an income? Who will care for and support you if there is stigma?"
Growing Up Too Quickly
When Alejandro faced discrimination from students and parents at his school, Angelica once again turned to Caritas Hondureña for help. "At school, they thought I was HIV-positive like my mother," recounts Alejandro, clearly distressed by the memory. "My schoolmates would not play with me, they went and told their parents that I was sick."
Afraid to hurt his mother's feelings, Alejandro kept this to himself for three years. He would cry and refuse to go to school, but wouldn't say why. Last year, Alejandro finally asked his mother why the other children would not play with him.
"Through my work with Dignidad, I knew that my colleagues could work with the school to break down the stigma my son was facing," said a beaming Angelica. The Dignidad project's psychosocial team first counseled Alejandro before talking with his teachers. Caritas Hondureña then invited the parents for a counseling session.
"The children asked me for forgiveness and now play with me. Nowadays, I enjoy going to school," said Alejandro.
At a young age, Alejandro has had to grow up quickly. On weekends, he helps his mother grow tomatoes, peppers and cabbage, which he sells to help support his family. Angelica also imports tomatoes from the nearby province of Choluteca, which she then sells for profit.
"With the profit, I feed and educate my children and also repay the loan to Caritas Hondureña," says Angelica. She borrowed a total of $260, which she pays back with an annual percentage rate of 24 percent. She makes an average of $200 per month, and in lean months, nothing at all.
Living Out Her Miracle
This woman, who came back from the brink of death, has dreams. Glancing around her rented one-bedroom house, Angelica says she would like her sons to one day own a business. Her message to young people is for them to be careful, aware, responsible and sensible. For those living with or affected by HIV, Angelica knows there is hope. "Have a plan and a goal. People will always assist if you knock on doors and request their support."
Angelica believes that her life has a purpose, "as long as I have a breath left in my body, I will live out my miracle."
The Dignidad project works in Honduras to help educate communities on HIV prevention, encourage voluntary testing, provide information on home-based care, help fight stigma, and provide loans that help small family businesses. The project has 6,000 direct beneficiaries and is part of a larger HIV and AIDS initiative funded by USAID.