April 11, 2008
HOPE IN HAITI
Cylar awardee Boucicault
The biggest challenge to fighting AIDS in Haiti isn't poverty or the difficulty of delivering AIDS meds to people in rural areas or any other formidable practical problem. The biggest challenge, according to Housing Works Keith D. Cylar International AIDS Activist Award winner Esther Boucicault, is ignorance. "Many people in Haiti still believe that AIDS is a punishment from God and that opportunistic infections are the result of witchcraft " Boucicault said. "These beliefs keep them from adopting safe behaviors."
Boucicault, along with four other remarkable AIDS activists, will be honored at Housing Works' Keith D. Cylar Awards benefit gala at the Times Center on April 17. The other awardees are Gloria Gonzalez, Diane Williams, Asia Russell and Paul Davis. For tickets to the Cylar Awards, visit cylarawards.com.
The Cylar Awards are largely meant to support the efforts of HIV-positive AIDS activists dedicated to fighting stigma and discrimination, a description that Boucicault embodies. In 1998, she became the first person to publicly discuss living with HIV in Haiti, a country where four percent of the population has the virus and AIDS stigma is profound. In one in a series of TV interviews, a news anchor offered Boucicault, who sat off-camera, a last chance to back out. Boucicault said, "I'm not afraid," and the camera pulled back to reveal a confident, poised, attractive woman.
"Esther is fearless," said her friend Elsy Mecklembourg-Guibert. "No one forced her to divulge her HIV status. She took it upon herself." Mecklembourg-Guibert has helped Boucicault make numerous visits to New York City to help educate Haitian immigrants about HIV prevention and dispel AIDS myths and stigma.
'A beacon of hope'
One reason Boucicault had the courage to tell her countrymen that she has HIV is that she was already a battle-tested AIDS warrior. In the early 90s, Boucicault lost her husband and son to AIDS. Shortly after her own diagnosis in 1995 (she believes an earlier test incorrectly diagnosed her as HIV-negative) and despite her own fragile health, she founded the groundbreaking Fondation Esther Boucicault-Stanislas (FEBS).
At FEBS, Boucicault was able to do what policy makers and politicians all over the world said, at the time, couldn't be done: Treat poor people with AIDS in rural areas. When world-renowned global treatment group Partners in Health wanted to help get care to Haitians in the St. Marc region where FEBS is located, they called Boucicault. "Adapting the PIH model of (treatment) delivery was very easy to lay over" what Boucicault already had in place, PIH medical director Joia Mukherjee told POZ magazine in 2005. PIH founder Paul Farmer called Boucicault "a beacon of hope and dignity."
Boucicault's announcement of her serostatus initially prompted negative reactions. She told POZ, "People thought I was lying, or the government had paid me." But Boucicault has persisted in voicing her message that AIDS is not God's punishment, that people with HIV deserve respect and treatment, and that all Haitians need to take measures to protect themselves and others.
"Things have changed a great deal," she said of the decade since she disclosed her status. "For example, there was a survey in Haiti that showed that most people wouldn't need to keep it a secret if a member of their family had HIV/AIDS. It's no longer this super illness where the victim must be isolated from the rest of the world."
Boucicault is excited about receiving a Cylar Award not just because the $10,000 cash grant will allow her to make micro-loans to FEBS clients and provide education for children with HIV, but because it brings greater attention to her mission. "The Cylar Award will give me more opportunities to make my voice heard, which I hope is the voice of people living with HIV in Haiti," Boucicault said. "Society in general needs to understand that people with HIV can live productive lives."