Magazine

We told the king we had HIV

Wangda Dorje and Tshering Choden Image copyright Wangda Dorje

For the last few years, Wangda Dorje and Tshering Choden have been the public face of HIV/Aids in Bhutan. They were among a group of five who were the first in the country to come out as HIV-positive - in front of the King, and then on national television.

Wangda Dorje and Tshering Choden have four young children. It's summer in Bhutan, and the sounds of a city under construction, come clattering in through the windows of their two-room flat in the capital, Thimphu. In the kitchen, their 12-year-old daughter is washing up, while the younger children play tag in the tiny living room. The TV is on and the flat is spotless. They seem like a model family, but their lives have been far from ordinary.

It all began in 2006 when Choden was three months pregnant with her second child. She and Dorje were on their way back from hospital, where they had just had a routine pregnancy check-up, when Dorje's phone rang. It was the hospital asking them to return urgently. Not knowing what the matter could be, they quickly made their way back. They were shown into a bare white room with a table and four chairs.

Two hospital counsellors, a man and a woman, sat silently looking at Dorje and Choden without uttering a word. "For some time they actually looked at each other, as if they were in too much pain to tell us what they had to say. Then, quite abruptly, the male counsellor asked my wife to go outside," says Dorje. "Then I was really worried. My pulse was racing."

Once Choden had gone outside, the counsellor told Dorje, "The HIV is very active in your body and also your wife's." Dorje looks pale, the shock visible as he recalls this life-changing moment.

"I couldn't speak a word for some time. I was completely lost. Then finally, after some time, the only thought that came to mind was infidelity," he says emphatically, staring at me directly. "I immediately suspected my wife of being unfaithful. Anger rose up so quickly, I felt hurt and furious."

But Dorje then asked the counsellor who was infected first, him or Choden, who was then just 18. He replied: "By looking at the body immunity level it looks like you were infected a long time before your wife."

That changed everything. Dorje shakes his head. "I felt really emotional, guilty and sad." He pauses. "Then the counsellor called my wife back into the room. I couldn't bear to look at her face, she was so young."

"I was very shocked, I was trembling all over," says Choden. "I couldn't say anything, I was on the verge of crying. And because I was very young, I thought I was going to die."

Dorje had been a drug user in his late adolescence, after a failed relationship. It was then that he had contracted the disease through shared needles. He had not even known that this was possible until the doctors explained it to him.

Image copyright Candida Beveridge
Image copyright Candida Beveridge

A counsellor gave them advice on anti-HIV medication and how to reduce the risk of transmitting the infection to their unborn baby.

"After we left hospital, I was in such a terrible state of shock, I don't even remember who we met," says Choden. "I was crying the whole time."

Both of them were also terrified of how other people would react.

"Although we were both scared we were going to die, what terrified us more was the social stigma," says Choden. "I thought people would find out and cast us out."

They made a pact, says Dorje. "When we were heading home that evening, my wife and I talked about what we should do. We promised we would not share our HIV-positive status with anyone - not with my parents or her parents or our children. We went as far as saying that we would keep it a secret from our children even when they got married."

At the time of the couple's diagnosis in 2006, Aids was still a rare disease in Bhutan.

This may have been due to its isolated geographical location, as well as the public health campaigns raising awareness about the disease. Sangay Choden Wangchuck, one of four wives of the then king, was a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Population Fund, a body that works to promote reproductive and sexual health.

By 2008, a couple of years later, only 144 cases of HIV had been officially registered among Bhutan's population of about 700,000. But numbers were on the rise, partly due to increasing border traffic between Bhutan and India and China. UNAids estimated the true figure of people living with HIV to be more like 500 cases, or about 0.1% of the population.

It was a growing concern among health officials like Tshering Nidup, who took it on himself to hand out condoms to vulnerable groups of people in the capital. His white van, plastered with slogans like "Get your condom today for a happy tomorrow" is a well-known fixture in the streets of Thimphu. He targets construction sites and truck-and taxi-stands, where he demonstrates how to use a condom using a rubber penis and plenty of jokes.

Image copyright Candida Beveridge
Image copyright Candida Beveridge
Image caption The condom man's famous van - he will deliver condoms at any time of the night

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Bhutan is quite an open-minded society in some ways - before the marriage act in 1980, it was not unusual for women in the villages to take more than one husband - but that doesn't mean that people talk openly about sex. It can be hard to get through to people. "You need to mix with them, joke with them, come to their level," says Nidup.

In 2006 HIV/Aids was still shrouded in secrecy and shame. "When I was told I was HIV-positive, I didn't have any HIV knowledge," says Dorje.

"All people really knew about Aids was that it was a silent killer, insidiously creeping throughout the population.

"There was a general perception circulating Bhutan at the time that HIV-positive people should be burned alive or branded on their thighs, so they could be recognised by other people," he says.

"Knowing this was how people felt about the disease, my heart felt so heavy - not only did I think, 'I'm going to die,' I was terrified about my parents finding out. What will happen if my brothers and sisters and my community hear about it? What will they think of me? That was my biggest fear," says Dorje.

A few months later Choden gave birth to a baby girl. To the couple's delight she was HIV-negative. It was a joyous secret they couldn't share with anyone.

Through the hospital and other agencies, Dorje began meeting other people living secretly with HIV. He witnessed them being socially ostracised, cast out from their families, their children excluded from school. He felt outraged but powerless. Living a lie himself, he was unable to do anything.

This began to change one night in 2009 when a TV advert was shown, depicting a man dressed in a heavy overcoat, with a dark suit and black boots, walking alone down an empty street. He sat down on a chair in an empty room, his face hidden, and said: "Guys, beware, if you get HIV/Aids, you're going to disappear like me." Then the man disappeared, leaving behind only a question mark.

When Choden saw the advert, she cried, and told her husband: "I am going to die very soon, I am very young, I'm going to die."

Dorje could bear it no longer.

"I decided I had to come out." he says. "I couldn't go on hiding my medicines and lying to people."

He persuaded three other men, who were also living with HIV, to come out with him. It was time to show the people of Bhutan the real faces of HIV.

But when Dorje told Choden of his decision, she was devastated. "I was very angry with him. I was scared. I told him, 'If you do that, I will leave you. I will take the children and go back to my village,'" she says. "I didn't want him to come out because Bhutan is a very small society where everybody knows each other and most people know I am his wife."

For a month she could hardly speak to her husband. She felt betrayed. The promises they had made to each other were now empty and worthless.

Dorje made plans to come out on World Aids Day, 1 December 2011.

As the day drew closer, Choden began to have a change of heart. "One fine night my wife came to me and told me she wanted to come out too," says Dorje. "I told her, 'Don't make this decision in haste, this is something you must be sure of, because once you come out you will be discriminated against. People will stare at you and call you names. If you are able to tolerate that, well it's a fantastic idea.'" Dorje's face brightens as he remembers that night.

"My real reason for doing it was because I am an illiterate woman," says Choden. "I felt if I could do something good for my society, then the personal sacrifice would be worth it."

Dorje, Choden and some of their HIV-positive friends were granted a private audience with his majesty, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the King of Bhutan.

"While I was feeling quite ashamed about having to talk about my disease, I was also very thankful because very few people get to meet the King," says Choden.

"He didn't make us feel outcast at all, or ashamed about this disease. He talked about general things, how life is going. He then talked to us about different diseases that are still out there, which are more dangerous than the ones we've already got."

"There were more than 1,000 people in the room," recalls Dorje proudly. The queen mother gave him a hug to show her appreciation, a hug that gave the silent message that HIV does not transmit through touch.

Image copyright Wangda Dorje

Later that day the five of them appeared on national television. For Choden, this was the biggest hurdle yet. "We were very worried, my heart was thumping, literally jumping out of my chest. If I could have had a second chance, I would have run away," she says.

Throughout Bhutan people gathered around their TV sets. No-one had ever seen a person living with HIV or Aids.

"My friend told me they were in a very crowded busy bar," says Dorje. "When they saw us come on TV, the bar became so quiet you could hear a pin drop. People were paying very careful attention, looking and listening intently. They wanted to know not just what an HIV person looked like but what they sounded like too."

The next day, as Choden and Dorje ventured out on to the street, they noticed people staring at them. Everybody knew who they were. Groups of children gathered around them looking at them inquisitively before quickly running away.

"That morning, I was very worried - I was very ashamed actually." says Choden. "I couldn't speak, I was trembling, I wasn't able to utter a word."

Then Dorje's father rang him, and said, "Son, I have been hearing bad remarks about you in the village. People are saying you are living with Aids."

"Dad what you heard is the truth," Dorje said. His father went very quiet. He couldn't speak for some time. Then he said, "Son, I think I should take you to one of Bhutan's hot springs."

"Dad, it is not a disease that can be cured by the hot springs," Dorje replied.

His mother and sister refused to speak to him.

After a few months, Dorje and Choden's landlord had evicted them. They were on the street with four children.

"My house-owners were illiterate, they were very old people. When I asked him what is the reason for making us move out, they told us, 'If you continue to live in this building, the other tenants will go away and they are worried they might get HIV from you people,'" says Choden.

They asked Dorje's brother to find them another flat. At school, their eldest daughter became a target for ridicule.

"She lost her friends. They said: 'Because your parents have HIV, there's a chance you might too,' and they told her they didn't want to be friends with her. She used to come home, cry and tell us she doesn't want to go to school any more," says Choden.

"I told her it's more important to confront this issue rather than changing schools, and running away from one place to another. I told her that there is no running away because one day we have to face it, make people understand what this is. It was just a matter of time - she started to cope pretty well."

From the kitchen, Choden's daughter pops her head into the living room. She is now 12 and doing well at school.

Shyly, she tells me about what happened at school shortly after her parents came out. "I used to tell my friends, please don't say I have HIV. I cannot get HIV from father and mother, because I know about HIV a little bit. You only get HIV if you don't use condoms. I told them, 'Don't be so worried - if we get HIV we will not die.'"

Determined to lead a normal life, the couple continued to expand their family. They were worried about passing on the virus, but as their second child had been born HIV-negative, they had hope that their third would also be HIV-negative. It was. But when they decided to try once more, they met with stern medical resistance.

"The doctor scolded us in front of so many people," Choden says. "He asked us whether this pregnancy was a deliberate one, or a mistake. I came forward and said it was deliberate. The doctor said: 'After this baby I am going to operate on you, so you don't have babies any more.'"

Choden agreed, and after she gave birth to her fourth child the doctor sterilised her.

Image copyright Wandga Dorje

Now they have four beautiful, healthy, cheeky children. They live, sleep, and eat together like any other normal family.

"Although we do almost everything together as a family, I always make sure whenever I have a cut that our bloods never mix. It's the only thing I really have to be careful about," Choden says.

Sitting on the sofa holding hands, Dorje and Choden are a handsome couple. They are the good-looking, wholesome face of HIV in Bhutan.

The disease has changed their lives in many different ways. Dorje now has a job as the head of a charity that brings together people with HIV/Aids in Bhutan.

And most importantly of all, it's brought them closer together emotionally.

"Before we were detected with this disease we used to quarrel, we used to fight, we used to have differences," says Choden.

"But after we were detected with HIV we became closer. We know that we are each other's only support, we are more considerate with each other. I don't remember fighting or even quarrelling since we were detected with this disease - in fact we have become more in love."

Image copyright Wangda Dorje

Wangda Dorje and Tshering Choden appeared on Outlook on the BBC World Service. Listen again to the interview on iPlayer or get the Outlook podcast.

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