Through Positive Eyes

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Betty JohannesburgBetty

I love my body. Touch makes me happy. Sometimes I sit and look in the mirror and say to myself, “I’m Betty.” I like it when people appreciate my sense of humor. I trust myself. Here’s my body.

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I’m 37 years old and work as a peer educator with sex workers. When I was 17, in 1990, I got pregnant with my first kid and went to the clinic. By the way, I didn’t like using condoms at the time. They said to me, “You’ve got warts,” in my pussy. They said to me, “You know about HIV?” I said, “No, I don’t.” “Want to take a test?” “Yes.” The test came back positive. I asked, “What do you mean, ‘positive’?” They said I had a virus called HIV. And I said, “When is this disease going to leave my body?” They said, “It won’t. It’s going to stay in your blood for the rest of your life.”

When I first found out, I was scared and lied to my mother about it. I told her I had diabetes, to explain the fact that I had been losing weight. Meanwhile, I had sores in my mouth and was feeling so tired. I told myself, “I’m going to die. This disease is killing me.”

Eventually I disclosed to my mother when I had my baby—he’s 20 years old now.

I went to see a counselor who asked me, “You know what HIV is?” I said, “I don’t. But I do know that it will kill you.” Then the counselor said, “You’ve got HIV, yes. But you won’t die. You will survive.” And it’s true. I’m surviving. At that time my CD4 count was 120. Now, after being on ARVs, it’s 1100.

I started coming to RHRU (Reproductive Health & HIV Research Unit) to get my medicines and to get counseling through a support group. One day the assistant at RHRU asked me, “Are you working?” “No, I’m not.” “Would you mind having a job here as a peer educator?” They were about to start a five-day training, so I joined it and earned a certificate. That’s how I became a peer educator teaching sex workers how to use condoms, how to put them on, how to have safe sex, and how to get treatment for HIV and STIs (sexually transmitted infections). I’m proud to be an HIV counselor focusing on sex workers because I have HIV too.

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I encourage sex workers to get tested every three months and to know their status. Sometimes condoms break. Sometimes they have a client who won’t use a condom. The sex workers charge extra money for that. I say, “Come to us. We’ll give you treatment. You can get medicine quickly. And we can test for your HIV status. I’m here to help you.”

Here are some of the reasons people become sex workers: Because they need money for their kids. Because they have no family. Or because they never went to school. See?

The money is easy.

There are lots of challenges. Sometimes the police arrest sex workers. And sometimes they rape them. A dangerous client might kill one. One time I was assigned to follow up on a sex worker. I looked for him at a hotel but I didn’t find him. Turns out he passed away. I’m sure he was killed by a client.

Here’s my message to sex workers: It’s better to be a volunteer for an organization. I’m sure that in three months you can get a job. Volunteer, or get a job, because the job that you’re doing now is not good. You’re vulnerable to so many things: HIV, AIDS, being killed. It’s not safe for you.

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