Princy Mangalika knows what it’s like to be ostracized. Twelve years ago when she became infected with HIV, her house was torched, she was chased out of her village and her children were banned from attending school in Sri Lanka.
Ms Mangalika’s husband, from whom she got the virus, committed suicide unable to cope with the stigma and discrimination of living with HIV. Homeless and hungry, she didn’t know what to do or where to turn.
That was in 2001. Since those dark days, she has emerged from despair to become a role model and symbol of hope in Sri Lanka.
Ms Mangalika, 53, founded the Positive Women’s Network (PWN+), an organization that raises awareness about HIV prevention in Sri Lanka - particularly among women, works towards reducing stigma and discrimination and advocates for access to health care for women.
“Asian culture confines women to the house. They do not access necessary information, they are not aware about their rights, the public health aspect of their lives,” said Ms Mangalika.
“For example, when your husband goes abroad, or is away from the family for a long time, women here in Sri Lanka are not courageous enough to ask him to wear a condom. That culture and environment do not exist, making women more vulnerable,” she added.
Ms Mangalika’s organization is dedicated to creating a positive and empowering environment for women and girls. PWN+ also runs two drop-in centers to provide a safe, secure, confidential and stigma-free environment for counseling services, financial and emotional support.
“Most women become infected with HIV from their husbands. And in Sri Lankan society, the women shoulder the burden. They face stigma and discrimination from society and within their own families. The men act as if AIDS has nothing to do with them,” said Ms Mangalika. “Human rights are not broadly discussed, they are not part of the education system… women and girls are ranked much lower than men,” she said.
According to Ms Mangalika, the group’s biggest challenge is to convince the government in conservative Sri Lanka to implement effective education and HIV prevention campaigns focusing specifically at women and girls.
PWN+ has been working with the UNAIDS country office to campaign for the inclusion of women and girls in Sri Lanka’s national AIDS response.
At the XIX International AIDS Conference that took place in Washington D.C. in July 2012, the organization received the Red Ribbon Award for their outstanding community work in the response to AIDS.
“It was a great moment,” said Ms Mangalika. “It means that people in the United States are talking about a small group of women in Sri Lanka who are active in dealing with HIV. It has brought us more respect both internationally and from within our local society.”
Ms Mangalika’s believes this global recognition will play an important role in reducing stigma and discrimination against women living with HIV in Sri Lanka, a country which has a relatively low incidence of HIV, but where new HIV infections have increased by more than 25% in the past 10 years.