Tamuna Gakhokidze, Tbilisi 37 years old

I’m the only woman in Georgia who is openly HIV positive. I have been living for 12 years with this diagnosis. I have three completely healthy children and I’m expecting my fourth child now. I’ve always dreamed to have many children and I’m happy that my dream came true.

In December 2008, in my fourth year in a penitentiary institution, I found out I was infected with the HIV virus.

Earlier, in 2001, when I was pregnant with my first child, I did a mandatory HIV test for pregnant and the answer was negative. After the arrest, I was tested every year not only for HIV, but also for hepatitis B and C, and each time I received a negative response. Only a test done in November 2008 confirmed positive. I can think of only two risky cases during this time in prison: one when I had appendicitis surgery and was taken to ‘’Aramiants’’ hospital, and second, when I needed dental surgery and they took me to the prison hospital. I think that’s where I got infected. Before I was brought in, there was another, the male patient sitting at the dental chair – he was pulled out as soon as I entered because a woman and a man aren’t allowed to be in the same space in prison. Perhaps the dentist made a mistake there and mixed up tools. I found out about my diagnosis 1 year after this.
I was 25 years old back then.

‘’If you start treatment now and take good care of yourself, you’ll live for 10 more years’’. ,, Forget about having children, they’ll be born infected like you are’’. ‘’They’ll only live for 3 years.’’ Doctors had me live with these myths in prison. All these days I couldn’t think about anything but ‘’the remaining 10 years’’. The past I lived, and the future awaiting me, went flashing before my eyes. Since they convinced me that I would never be able to have a child, I thought I would adopt one. But with my past that would be impossible and I stopped to even dream about it. I was afraid of going to sleep – I wanted to stay awake as long as possible. I was also afraid of the next day to come, thinking it would probably be the last. So I stood in front of the barred window and watched the beginning of a new day. I wanted to see it over and over again. I was prescribed psychotropic drugs so that I wouldn’t be overwhelmed, But I felt that these drugs made me more addicted. So, I decided that I had to be stronger and learned how to fight against it. It took me 3 months.

I decided to talk about my diagnosis with women I had contact with. I could have kept my confidentiality, but I didn’t want to put their health at risk. I told them, that I wouldn’t be upset if they avoided me. In exactly half an hour, the whole prison knew about my disease. Mostly I felt a negative attitude the administration. This is also caused by stigma. People still think that AIDS diagnosis means you’ve done something perverted. I was told several times, mockingly, that I could have gone to a pharmacy and protected myself. In fact, I was infected in their own penitentiary institution due to their own employees’ negligence, from whom no one could be protected. However, there were also employees who took my condition to heart and encouraged me. I was almost a child when I got there.
I was arrested at the age of 21.

I don’t know what to say. Perhaps, it was a fair punishment to me for taking someone’s life that was gifted by the lord. I, as a human being, didn’t have the right to do so. On the other hand, if not that ‘’skewer iron’’ nearby, as it was mentioned in the judgment, I wouldn’t be alive today. I protected myself from the person who regularly abused me. Ten concussions, spinal cord injuries, bruises – these are just a few injuries I suffered as a result of his violence. I couldn’t protect myself from violence, because there wasn’t any judicial mechanism at the time against that kind of abuse and I took all of this with patience just to stay alive.

I was convicted of premeditated murder. I killed my own husband. I was sentenced to 6 years. They added a year and a half for finding a cell phone. Another year and a half for participation in the so-called ‘’prison riot’’ in 2009.

The support of my family – my parents and brothers made me stronger in prison. The hardest part was that I couldn’t see my child at all. It’s very difficult to see your child from behind the glass. My grandparents were still alive back then. Grandpa was transferring half of his pension to me. None of them were alive when I came out.

It was very difficult to share my diagnosis with my family. They were very uninformed and they also believed in myths as they were convinced that only drug users and sex workers could be diagnosed with this. I knew it would be hard for them to understand. One day, I asked prison administration for brochures about AIDS and I asked my father during the appointment to read it on the way back home.

I called him in the evening. He read it but still couldn’t understand what it was supposed to mean. I told him directly that I was HIV-infected. He froze and couldn’t speak. My mother had an even stronger reaction. She cried during our appointment like it was my funeral. At such times, each person’s reaction is devastating. Finally, they came to terms with my diagnosis and realized that it didn’t mean death.

They released me from prison on November 10th, 2012. I came out with a double stigma—I was convicted and HIV-infected. I started treatment the next day. According to the previous protocol, only patients with immunity below 250 would be treated. So, nobody recommended treatment for me in prison. According to the current procedure, everyone diagnosed with this disease will be treated, to turning the infection into its more complicated form – into AIDS. At the beginning of the treatment, I had information about side effects, but that couldn’t stop me. I wanted to live, and I wanted to give life to others. After long-term treatment, my virus became suppressed and my immune system increased. After that I became a mother of 2 healthy children. Now I’m waiting for the fourth.

Every last week of May is a Remembrance Day for people who died of AIDS. We remember this day with the Association ‘’Pomegranate’’. Symbolically, the pomegranate implies a drop of blood. We want people to understand that we, the HIV-infected, shouldn’t be avoided. Our diagnosis is not a death sentence, and we are not a threat to others. Nowadays it’s treatable and living with it is as possible as with any other diseases.

‘’leave no one without medical services’’ – this slogan is the main call to action of our campaign. Existing stigma is the reason for HIV-infected people to be denied medical care. Even doctors are not fully aware of this infection. Even though HIV treatment is funded by government programs, there are only four AIDS centers in the whole country, which is obviously not enough. They do not respect the confidentiality of patients. While standing in line to receive medicine there’s a high risk of running into acquaintances and information about the diagnosis spreads quickly. The problem is acute especially in regions and many people stopped receiving treatment because of this Also, the problem is that such centers are all located in Tbilisi or in eastern Georgia and patients have to travel long distances from their hometowns. Therefore, it’s essential that municipal outpatient clinics have opportunities for tests and treatments. Patients should have a choice – whether to go to a polyclinic or to an infectious disease facility. Nowadays that isn’t possible. The AIDS Center of Tbilisi is in a terrible condition. This center is located at the base of Aversi Clinic, and nobody is paying attention to it. There are such unsanitary conditions, that inpatient treatment is unbearable for patients.

The message of our campaign is for the government to pay attention to HIV-infected people: provide them with decent medical services and make these services available at the municipal level.

My new family knows everything about my diagnosis. Even though my children are little by now, they are involved in the treatment process. They have a lot of information about HIV-infection; they know how to delay it and that treatment is needed. They even help me not to forget to take medicine, so I can be with them for many more years’’

Author: Maiko Chitaia
Photo: Geda Darchia
Translation: Mariam Kajrishvili