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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”


Breaking the silence - Stigma, discrimination and HIV/AIDS

Patricia Watson, Senior Staff Reporter

HERS IS not the sort of life anyone would wish on his or her worst enemy. To describe it as rough would be an understatement.

Latoya Smith is 17 years old and HIV positive. Since age 12, this soft-spoken teenager has been running. Running away from her pain, trying desperately to find love and affection, but instead may have contracted a disease she never bargained for.

Latoya told Outlook recently that she is still affected by the ghosts of the five men who she said abducted her and brutally raped her. She was just 12 years old, but that didn't stop them from assaulting her. She ran when the verdict came back and the only man she was able to recognise was found not guilty by the Justice system. She could not believe the system could have let her down so badly. She explained she was just a child, yet the men who raped her got away with it.

When she was put in a place of safety, she ran again, into the outstretched arms of men she did not know, but who offered her the comfort and love she desperately sought.

"I got raped when I was 12 years and that is where things started to go downhill for me," the teenager told Outlook. She explained that after the rape she went to England, but ran away from home and was returned to Jamaica and placed in another place of safety. While there a medical examination was done and she was diagnosed with HIV. Latoya explained that it was the scorn and the name calling which drove her to run away again from the home. She ended up in Montego Bay, practically living on the streets.

"I was on the streets when I met up with some ladies who work at the Jamaica AIDS Support office and they took me to the office," Latoya said.

"I've had a rough life, you wouldn't understand. I face a lot of discrimination and my mother blames everybody and me for everything that has happened to me. It is really stressful."

It is estimated that one in 20 teenagers could die of AIDS. Between January and June 2002, adolescent females in the age group 15-19 years old were three times more likely to be HIV positive. And between 1982 and June 2002, 66 females aged 15-19 had contracted HIV. HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death for women aged 20-29 in Jamaica.

Latoya told Outlook that her mother has lived overseas for 13-14 years and she "has not had a decent conversation with me since" (she was diagnosed). "She sey she already lose me (she is dead as far as her mother is concerned). Every day I am like mommy come out, all I want is for you to be with me."

She is also reluctant to return to her home in another rural parish.

"I went back to (parish), but I was uncomfortable. Majority of the people doesn't like me, and they say all kinds of bad things to me. It was very stressful, so I came back to MoBay," she noted.

"To tell you the truth, I don't know if I got HIV from the rape or afterwards. I was just looking for somebody to care and love me."

Mark, who is also HIV positive and is a sort of mentor for Latoya, said she "has had a past of both neglect by parents as well as being a wayward child."

"She had been out there with all kinds of adult men and they do all sorts of things with her." In her quest for comfort, he explained she may even have infected a few men, but he along with others have been trying to get her to understand and cope with the infection as well as to act responsibly. She has stopped running now and is talking about going to school.

"I want to finish my schooling so I can be a journalist later on. I love to read and I think I will also do a bit of counselling especially of young girls like me."