12/04/2013, 00.00
SRI LANKA
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Mangalika's story: an HIV-positive Catholic woman helps fellow AIDS patients

by Melani Manel Perera
The 53-year-old woman discovered she had contracted the virus from her husband, a migrant worker, who could not resist the shame and committed suicide. Faith in God, family support and the encouragement of an HIV-positive doctor led Princy Mangalika to establish an NGO for people with HIV/AIDS. In Sri Lanka, the disease is still stigmatised, even though at least 3,000 people are affected. "They threatened me and tried to set fire to my house," she said, "but I thank the Lord for showing me the way."

Colombo (AsiaNews) - For Princy Mangalika, a 53-year-old Catholic woman who ten years ago found out that she was HIV-positive, the goal in life is to help people with AIDS-HIV in Sri Lanka to cope with the social stigma, seek treatment and not feel ashamed of their disease.

After overcoming the shock of her own discovery, she founded - and still runs - the Positive Women's Network, an NGO that takes care of people with HIV/AIDS.

"What happened to me," Mangalika told AsiaNews, "is God's will. He wanted me to serve all those who, like me, have contracted the virus. Today I am very happy."

In Sri Lanka, people with HIV/AIDS are often victims of persecution because the virus is considered a source of shame and impurity.

There is also little by way of information on how to prevent the disease, or about how it is contracted and treated. According to official data, some 3,000 people are currently living with the disease across the country.

Mangalika's story began in 2000, when she found out that she had contracted the virus from her husband, a Buddhist. For many years, he had worked abroad in different countries, and in one of them had contracted the infection.

When she found out, "I was not angry at him," she said. I loved him very much, and he was a loving father to our two daughters."

"My husband would fall ill very often," she explained. "He always had the flu and colds, but never anything serious. So one day we went to the hospital for a test. There they suggested he get tested for HIV, which we did and the result was positive. Unfortunately, the news spread quickly in our village, and that's when the nightmare began."

Mangalika and her family began getting threatening letters. "Some people began throwing stones at our house," she explained, "shouting obscenities when we walked down the street. At the time, I did not know about the disease or how to treat it. I was only very scared for my girls."

Despite family support, Mangalika's husband could not accept his new reality. Then one day he just disappeared. After taking her daughters to her parents, she went out looking for him.

In the end, police phoned her saying they had found his body: he had gone to a Buddhist temple and killed himself by taking poison. "Only three days had passed by since we had found out about his illness."

The problems for the woman and her daughters did not end there. Now, in addition to the stigma of the virus, they had to cope with that of a husband and father who had committed suicide.

"They did not want me to bury him, so I had the funeral celebrated away from our village. Later, one night, we heard noises and got up only to realise that someone had set fire to our home."

At that point, Mangalika knew that she could no longer live in her village and decided to move in with her parents, in Ragam.

"They welcomed us with love," she said, "and thanks to their support I decided to be tested. When I found out I was HIV-positive I hit rock bottom. I did not know where to go or what to do."

Then, "I just put myself in God's hands," she explained, and "turned to Dr Kamelika Abeyratne, who encouraged me to raise awareness of the plight of people living with HIV/AIDS in Sri Lanka."

Even the doctor was HIV-positive, from a tainted blood transfusion. "Her strength gave me the drive to create the Positive Women's Network in 2009."

At present, "Many patients live in my office, which is also my home," she said. "They have no place to go for treatment or tests. I feed them and help them in their moments of weakness. For this reason, I am always looking for financial assistance. We are still renting but we need a new place all of our own."

Mangalika's NGO helps about 300 people, including 174 children, 32 of whom are HIV-positive.

"I thank the Lord for everything that has happened to me," she said; "for my two daughters, who are now grown and have their own families."

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