Earlier this week the Chithuen Phendey Executive Director, Tshewang Tenzin put up a letter on the social media that talked about a HIV positive alcoholic woman sleeping on the streets and being exploited sexually by up to 50 youth and men unaware of her HIV status.
It has now been found that there been four such cases of four different women of which three are confirmed HIV positive and one is suspected to be HIV positive.
The first issue is the exploitation of these women which in some cases would even constitute rape. The second is that many of those engaging in such acts with the women are mainly individual or groups of youth on the streets unaware of the women’s HIV status. Some of them are suspected of being even school students who on engaging in unprotected sex can pass on the HIV virus to their girlfriends.
Of the four women Chithuen Phendey has established contact with three of them and it knows about a fourth one undergoing rehab and counseling. The CSO does not rule out the possibility of more such vulnerable women being out there.
The four women all share the same qualities of being young women in their 20’s with drug and alcohol addiction problems. All of them also share similar stories of their families giving up on them and leaving them on their own to roam the streets and bars and even sleep on the streets.
Being vulnerable, attractive and still in their youth these women fall prey to unsuspecting youth and also men, either for a few drinks or while they are high and even passed out in the dingy bars and streets of Thimphu.
The first and main case
Tshewang said that his letter had been about a 27 year old woman from Gasa who for more than a year had been on the streets of Thimphu.
He said that he had been contacted by people about the women around three time over the period of last one year, but it was only recently that he tracked her down to help her. He said that he seriously started looking for her when he heard that she was HIV positive and was being exploited by youth and men, unaware about her status, when she was high or passed out in bars or on the streets.
After a couple of nights of looking he spotted her briefly on 2nd December 2015 on the stairs of a hotel near the new gate of Norzin Lam drunk and crying that she did not get a room. However, before he could get to her he saw three young youths who lifted and almost forcibly dragged her away.
He later enquired with Ugyen an alcoholic who hung out in the same area. Ugyen confirmed to him that it was not only the three youths who took her but there were other youth and men who took the woman for sex even when she was passed out. Ugyen even showed Tshewang around four isolated and dark corners in the ground floor of the Thimphu Thromde office where people had sex with the woman. There were others who picked her up and took her in their cars to other places.
Tshewang spotted a laborer’s camp nearby and found some young foreign labourers and some Bhutanese youth they had befriended. He asked the labourers about the woman but they said they did not know anything. However, when he informed them that she was HIV positive and that they should use protection for their sake, he said the face expressions of a few of the labourers visibly changed.
He found out that the building with around six dingy and small bars was where the woman was usually found.
On Thursday, 3rd December he saw the woman in the area and attempted to convince her to come with him for help but the woman, who was drunk by then, was aggressive and screamed at him to go away.
Though Tshewang’s CSO does not directly deal with HIV patients he was determined to do something about the issue looking at the plight of the woman and also knowing her HIV status.
“I was obsessed by the fact that I have a younger brother and I could see many young students on holiday break being vulnerable with a higher teenage sexual drive,” he added.
In looking for her Tshewang came across an elderly alcoholic and regular at the place who said he saw her being taken by up to 30 men while another bar regular said he had seen her with more than 50 men over a short time period. A CSO volunteer who knew about her HIV status and background said that the woman had been with more than 50 men.
He also found that other CSO’s had tried helping the woman several times with rehab programs and other measures but she had a tendency to relapse after a month or two. The woman had found her HIV status four months ago after testing, though it is suspected she had it for longer.
“She once grumbled about looking for a boy who gave her HIV but we don’t know how she exactly got it,” Tshewang said.
Still looking for her, Tshewang on Saturday 5th December went around the local bars with his female volunteer asking for bar owners to call him if they see her. On Sunday he got a call from a bar owner informing him of her location. Tshewang then requested the Royal Bhutan Police for help in not detaining her per say but convincing her to go for treatment.
The RBP on Monday 7th December went with Tshewang and convinced the women to go for treatment.
The woman is currently admitted in the Jigme Dorji Wangchuk National Referral hospital and in addition to immediate care for her addiction is also getting HIV retroviral drugs. An added problem is that given her lack of HIV drugs in the past few months her viral load would have been higher making it even easier to pass HIV to those having unprotected sex with her.
Tshewang said that the next task before his hand is to use the woman to track down and identify the youth and men who had sex with her so that he can ask them to go and get a HIV test done and take necessary precautions.
The woman as a child in Gasa never knew her father, and her mother passed away when she was only five after which she went to live with her elder sister in Bumthang. Her elder sister married her off at the age of 13 to a much older man who was an alcoholic and abused and traumatized her. She gave birth to twin sons but lost one of them early on.
When her remaining son turned five her husband divorced her and even took away her family Dzee (cats eye) jewel given to her by her late mother. She then fought a court case for the dzee but being young and unable to face the stress of the case, she took to alcohol to just be able to face the Drangpon. In the meantime she lost everything and even her son who was adopted by her sister and is now eight years old.
Tshewang said that the woman had undergone severe trauma from an early age and all of that contributed to her present condition.
The other three cases
In addition to the above recent case the first similar case for Chithuen Phendey was in 2013 with a 26 year old woman from Thimphu who faced similar problems and slept on the streets and in dingy bars. She was confirmed to be HIV positive and it is suspected she contracted the diseases when she was vulnerable and drunk on the streets. Tshewang said that the woman underwent rehabilitation and is now doing well.
Another case of another HIV positive woman aged around 27 facing similar problems also came to the attention of Tshewang but she is currently under rehabilitation and counseling and is making a recovery from her addiction.
The fourth case was found by Tshewang on Friday afternoon based on the verbal accounts of the woman from Gasa. The fourth woman is originally from Trongsa and is also around 26 or 27. She was married and settled with children in Chukha but then was divorced from her husband.
Tshewang said that the woman recounted being an alcoholic and sleeping on the streets of Thimphu. He said that when he found her she talked of a tough life and he also found condom packets in her pocket. She is suspected of being HIV positive and has been sent for testing. She too has been admitted at the JDWNRH hospital for treatment.
Legal and policy issues
Tshewang said that given the above cases the need of the hour is to come with rules and regulations whereby the law and other agencies can do something to help such people. He said in other countries a HIV person has to reveal their status even before having protected sex. He also said that steps need to be taken to find and help such people on the streets otherwise the health implications would spread across the society.