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April 20, 2010

HIV-Positive Liberians Fight Workplace Discrimination

by Scott Stearns

HIV-positive people in Liberia say they are being discriminated against in the workplace. AIDS counselors say that is adding to depression and isolation.

In a country where official unemployment tops 80 percent, it is hard for anyone in Liberia to find a job. But people who are HIV-positive say it is even more difficult for them because many employers refuse to hire people who have the virus that causes AIDS.

"We are very troubled about this situation," said Samuel Thompson. "Things are really getting hard on us. Every time we are denied jobs. Our families are suffering. And we are neglected by our own people. We don't know what to do."

Samuel Thompson is HIV positive. He says not being able to provide for their families adds to the stress of Liberians who have contracted the virus.

"Why should we be treated in such a manner as if to say we are not human beings? We too are human beings," he said. "We are angry about this."

HIV counselor Smith Sando says the public rejection of job discrimination further isolates HIV-positive Liberians and can lead to deep depression.

"There is a need for the individual who is HIV positive to understand the issue of neglect, the issue of stigma," said Smith Sando. "Now, it is not a stigma that is coming from outside. It is not a stigma that is coming from a friend or the family. It is a stigma that is coming from within the individual."

Sando says his clinic helps people learn how to live with the virus and how to cope with a society that largely excludes them.

"If they have accepted, firstly, accepted their status and understand that, yes, they need to survive," he said. "They need to kind of free their mind that, yes, they are HIV positive. They should not worry about what society thinks about them."

As a high-school drop-out with HIV, Larry Teah says he has no chance to find a job in a society where he says HIV-positive Liberians are treated as if they are from another world.

"People are discussing our conditions as if to say we are from the evil forest," said Larry Teah. "We want to live. We are often denied jobs. We have been neglected and abandoned by family members. We have no more hope. Something needs to be done about this."

Counselor Sando says ending job discrimination against HIV-positive Liberians begins with basic education about how the virus is spread.

"People do not understand what it is," said Sando. "They just think that if somebody has it, when you shake their hand you are going to get it. No. It is not. Even eating with a person you are not going to get it. So if people understand how HIV can be transmitted, obviously they will be able to live with anybody in their home. They can be able to work with the person."

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 35,000 Liberians are HIV positive. More than three-quarters of those infected are women.