Being that March 10th is National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, the spotlight is currently being focused on woman-specific methods of treatment and prevention across the country. While this is an American event, it offers a good opportunity to think also of women across the world who are fighting against this virus, especially those living on the continent in which the front lines of this epidemiological war are located.
Out of more than 33 million people living with HIV and AIDS worldwide, women account for about 52%. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, the scales are tipping. There, 60% of those fighting against this disease are women and girls. Because of their biology, women are at a higher risk of contracting HIV in the first place. Circumstances in many parts of Africa are exacerbating this imbalance and making things especially difficult for those hoping to control the spread of the virus, as illustrated by the story of Mma Oganne.
Mma was a married mother of four when she tested for HIV. She did not even believe that the disease existed before she was diagnosed, let alone consider that she was at risk. Because she lived in rural Botswana, this may have been a result of a lack of education in the area. Another troubling possibility, however, is that she believed the theories of AIDS denialists such as former South African president Thabo Mbeki, who insist that HIV does not lead to AIDS and can be cured by home remedies such as lemon, garlic, and olive oil. Some others say that AIDS does not exist at all, or denounce life-saving antiretroviral drugs as poison and claim that they cause, rather than treat, AIDS.
When two of her children were consistently sickly and frail, Mma took them to a health clinic where all three of them tested positive. Her husband’s reaction to the news then added insult to injury; he told her that he was going to get tested and never came back home. Even more unfair is the fact that he was almost certainly the one to infect her. Mma’s husband is a mineworker, currently one of Africa’s populations at the highest risk of contracting HIV. Mineworkers often are away from home for long periods of time, sometimes in different countries altogether. Many of them have relationships with women living near the mines where they work and end up bringing STIs back home with them. This is likely the situation with Mma, who then passed the disease on to her children when they were born.
The bright spot in this story is that Mma was able to obtain antiretroviral drugs for her children. For many people, there is no clinic close enough to visit on a regular basis in order to obtain the medicine. For others, the medicine is available nearby, but they do not have the money to pay for it. At first, she refused to take the drugs for fear of alienating herself from the community. The stigma of having AIDS in much of Africa is so powerful that most refuse even to get tested to avoid suspicion. Once she saw the dramatic change in her children’s health, however, she rethought her decision.
Being HIV positive is enough to handle without such large societal problems making things worse. Issues like social stigma, lack of access to care, the spread of inaccurate information, and so many others are tying the hands of people trying to make things better in Africa. Big changes need to made in places like Botswana, especially for women like Mma, if the spread of HIV is ever going to be controlled. This is something to think about on Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day while people the world over are fighting to gain ground in the struggle against this disease.
The BLC would like to thank Rachel Corrado for her contribution to our blog, and her ongoing volunteer efforts to serve people living with HIV.