“I can tell a married woman living isolated at home that she can get infected with HIV/AIDS,” was Princey Mangalika’s clear message at the mobile and gallery “Portraits of Commitment” exhibition held in Sri Lanka August 2007.
A stay at home wife who had never held a job Princey had no idea what AIDS was. Her husband a hotel worker had gone abroad to work for a German man in 1994. It was only after his return in 2000 that he fell seriously sick and a hospital test revealed he had AIDS. Ostracized and hounded by the villagers Princey found him after a three day search in a temple in Colombo crying hysterically. His mouth was burned from the poison he had taken and although doctors had fought to save his life he had died that day of poisoning.
When Princey’s house was set on fire by neighbours she took her two children and sought refugee with her parents. For her, the nightmare was not yet over. When finally she had her own HIV test, it showed she was positive.
She is now the President of the the Lanka Plus NGO formed to help HIV-positive people with the assistance and support of Dr. Kamalika Abeyratne who herself was infected with HIV virus from a blood transfusion.
When I finally came face to face with this remarkable lady she was more petite than in her portrait. Dressed in a white Kandyan saree and sporting the red aids ribbon badge, she had arrived after the opening ceremony of the exhibition.
It was a pleasure to talk to this confident, effervescent lady. Some of her thoughts and views are captured in this interview I did for the short film produced on the Mobile and Gallery exhibitions by Pathshala Institute of Photography, Bangladesh.
Q:Princey, tell me how you feel to see your portrait among all the others here?
Princey: If you look at all the photos here, most are living with HIV. There are no differences in the photos, all are alike, and I am amazed as to why society is so fearful about this [AIDS]
Q: In your opinion what message can this exhibition convey?
Princey: I feel that if the younger generation takes a closer look at these photos with a good awareness they will be terrified as this is not a disease that is visible externally. This I hope will make them conscious and wary of the dangers of unsafe sexual behaviour.
Q: How can we use exhibitions like this to really reach the young and convey the message?
Princey: If the message is passed on to the young generation by people like me it becomes much more significant because the society does not understand or know much about what HIV or AIDS is. They have only heard of AIDS and think AIDS patients are disfigured and ugly. So if programs are made using people like me living with HIV to convey messages they will be more successful. Maybe then it might become easy to find a solution to this problem.
Q: You are now willing to come out in the open and take this message. But the early days wouldn’t have been easy for you. Can you tell me how it was then?
Princey: When attention focused on my husband, he did not have any privacy or confidential rights. There was a breach of confidentiality by the minor employees of the hospital when we went to seek health care. Quite unnecessarily we had to face attacks and innumerable difficulties. This was hard and I suffered enough overcoming these hurdles. I have had to face every difficulty that life has to offer. So there is nothing new that can happen to me now. I have overcome these barriers and come a long way in life with patience and will power. I am happy about this. In future if there is anything I can do, I hope to do it well.
Q: How will you carry on with your work?
Princey:We have to give correct information to society about HIV and AIDS—what is HIV, what is AIDS, how it is transmitted and how it is not transmitted. Undoubtedly this message needs to go the younger generation. Till they marry youth needs to be cautious about their sexual behaviour or delay sex till marriage. Pre- marital relationships, sudden or casual relationships shouldn’t lead to sex. My advice to husbands and wives is to live life trusting each other totally – it is not enough one partner being the trusting one – the trust must be mutual.
The mobile and gallery exhibitions featured large, sensitive portraits of South Asians who have made a commitment to change the course of HIV/AIDS by the renowned Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam and insightful interviews by Karen Emmons illustrating the diverse forms of compassion and roles that leadership can take in confronting AIDS.
The photographs highlighted the realities and emphasized the positive directions people are moving in order to rise above difficult situations. Each story centered on a different aspect of the disease, a different reason for committing to help others .
The “Portraits of Commitment” exhibitions were made possible through the World Bank’s Small Grants Youth Initiative program organised by the World Bank Sri Lanka office in partnership with the exhibition producers Pathshala, the South Asian Institute of Photography, and the Asia Pacific Leadership Forum on HIV/AIDS and Development of UNAIDS. The book by the same name was commissioned by UNAIDS.