Beauty queen’s woes reflect HIV stigma in Russia
Kazan -- Svetlana Izambayeva wants to free her little brother from an orphanage but there's a big problem: she's HIV-positive and this is Russia, where discrimination against people with AIDS is rampant.
Izambayeva, 28, has been seeking custody of 10-year-old Sasha since their mother died in February, but Russian authorities sent her an official refusal, citing her "incurable" disease.
It is another indication that, even as governments and campaigners mark World AIDS Day this Tuesday, discrimination is still the norm rather than the exception for many people living with the condition.
The irony is that Izambayeva has become something of a poster child for the campaign to win better treatment for HIV-positive people, being crowned "Miss Positive" in Russia’s first beauty pageant for women with HIV in 2005.
Officials still consider her as an unfit mother even though she has married and raised two healthy, HIV-negative children since contracting the virus from a short-lived summer romance in 2003.
"Infectious diseases are cause for denying child custody, until cured," the letter from social services officials reads.
"Your illness qualifies as infectious."
Activists say cases like Izambayeva’s are no surprise in Russia, where many HIV-positive people hide their status from their peers and employers for fear of ostracism.
"Before I thought I had to hide myself, isolate myself from society," said Izambayeva, a former hairdresser turned activist from the Volga River city of Kazan, some 800 kilometres (500 miles) from Moscow.
"But one can live even with the virus, and live normally!" she added in an interview at her home, a tiny apartment decorated in bright colours.
Russia has the fastest growing HIV-positive population in the world, with around 140-150 new cases of infection daily and one percent of the population living with HIV, according to the country’s Federal AIDS Centre.
But fear and suspicion of people with the virus has been slow to change.
"Our society does not accept people living with HIV," said Vladimir Mayanovsky, head of the All-Russian Union of People Living with HIV, a non-governmental organisation.
"Eighty percent of the people you might have been sitting and drinking tea with before, will turn away from you once you admit having the virus."
"Many people still think the infection can be had through dirty dishes or mosquito bites, so of course people are afraid to live with an HIV-positive person," he said.
It is common for HIV-positive Russians to be pressured into leaving small towns and villages if their status becomes public, according to Doverie, or Trust, a support group that runs a hotline in Moscow.
Izambayeva says she is devastated her brother should suffer poor conditions and neglect at an orphanage because of her status.
"They don’t take care of him there, his hair is always dirty. It’s very hard for him. He’s scared," she said with a sigh.
The boy’s case has been taken up by Agora, a human rights group that calls the government’s position illegal.
"This refusal is illegal and discriminatory," Agora lawyer Ilnur Charapov said. "Furthermore, Svetlana gave birth to two healthy children. Why is she allowed custody of these children and not her brother?"
Nevertheless, local authorities stand by their decision to refuse custody, saying Izambayeva must appeal the decision in court.
"Our services’ decision allows for a court appeal, and we are ready to review all these questions within the framework of a judicial proceeding," the deputy head of local social services in Kazan, Valentina Ivanova, told AFP.
Agora and other activists say the authorities’ decision stems from the lack of AIDS education in Russia.
"It’s up to the state to explain that this illness is not as horrible as was once thought and to show that HIV-positive individuals are citizens like everyone else," Charapov said.