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HIV Positive Women Score Against Stigma

THE earth is parched but pregnant clouds hang, threatening to burst into a downpour anytime.

In anticipation of the cloudburst the people run in all directions for shelter, screaming joyously for the relief the rain will bring.

This is in Epworth, a sprawling settlement southeast of Harare.

On a dusty football pitch is a group of middle-aged women having a good time playing soccer, ignoring the threat from the sky.

It is not just an ordinary group of women, they are soccer champions. They may not be as prominent as soccer teams such as Gunners or Dynamos whose players don designer label jerseys and football boots, but they have changed a lot of people’s lives — not only in their community but nationwide.

The team — ARV Swallows named after antiretroviral therapy — has so far won three soccer competitions.

In the middle of the pitch, an outstanding voice could be loudly heard barking instructions. The voice belongs to ARV Swallows captain nicknamed China.

China, whose real name is Janet Mpalume, and her teammates live positively with HIV and Aids and have defied all odds by fighting the stigma and discrimination still associated with the pandemic through football.
Mpalume (32) tested positive in 2007 after she fell sick for a long time.

She said: “I accepted it, and I made my status public. Coming out in the open helped me to be where I am now. When I tested positive my CD4 count was 131 but now it has been boosted to 469.”

People with a CD count below 350 are entitled to get the life-prolonging ARVs.

She said she went public to fight the stigma and discrimination associated with HIV and Aids in her community.

“Soon after announcing my status, some people refused to share a cup I would have used, or take anything I would have touched,” Mpalume narrated to the Zimbabwe Independent on Tuesday —World Aids Day. “It was painful for me but through football we have managed to tone it down in Epworth, even now when I am drinking a fizzy people rush to share it with me.”

She said the community initially did not take the ARV Swallows seriously because some of its players were deemed not fit to kick the ball because of illness.

The team, according to Mpalume, is sending a strong message nationwide that women should not see themselves as victims of the HIV and Aids disease, but champions in the fight against the pandemic.

Issues of major concern raised during the World Aids Day were the worsening plight of children and women living and affected by HIV and Aids.

According to the Zimbabwe Demographic and Health Survey women constitute 54% of people living with HIV and Aids in the country and HIV prevalence is higher among females aged 15-49 years (21,1%) than males (14,5%).

A study recently conducted by the University of Zimbabwe put HIV as the number one cause of maternal deaths.

A report jointly done by Unicef and the Central Statistical Office said 100 children below the age of five years have been dying daily in the past five years due to preventable diseases of which HIV and Aids topped the list. This was a 20% increase from 1990.

Two thirds of infected children urgently requiring ARVs were reportedly failing to access treatment and there was negligible coverage of HIV treatment for children in the critical first two years of life.

Over 75% of about one million orphaned and vulnerable children in the country were reportedly not receiving any form of formal external support from government, private, religious, charity or community-based organisations.

Gladys Chiwome-Mudondo, Women and Aids Support Network (WASN) advocacy manager, said there were biological and social reasons for higher HIV prevalence among woman.

Chiwome-Mudondo said: “The first reason could be the biological make up of a woman in relation to the way organs are positioned in a woman’s body. If a woman has unprotected sex with a man she is more likely to be in more contact with the fluids than the man.

“There are reasons to do with sex and sexuality. Very few women can set their own decisions for example deciding to use the condom during intercourse, there is also very few prevention devices for women. The female condom has proved unpopular with women due to poor marketing. Other issues have to do with poverty which makes women more vulnerable.”

She advised women not to look down upon themselves but fight for their rights so that they protect themselves against HIV and Aids.

Founder of Women Empowerment Group in Epworth Farai Makoni said there was no need to apportion blame when one tests positive, but map the way forward for a healthy life and fight the stigma.

His organisation has initiated a project to rehabilitate commercial sex workers in the neighbourhood.

Makoni said: “The objective was to support and change the lives of women who were doing sex work by introducing to them other means of survival that they could engage in so that they change their behaviour. By networking them with different organisations we introduced them to small businesses like cross-border trading and opening their own market stalls. Some have even gone into preaching and peer education.”

“Their campaigns have brought positive results in the community and of late we get fewer cases of gender violence and sexual abuse being reported at our offices. Some of the sad cases are of fathers who are raping their children. It is a major concern here.”

Unicef country representative Peter Salama this week said women and children remain the missing face of HIV and Aids response in the country and called for scaling up of the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission services and HIV and Aids treatment for women and children.

Salama said: “HIV and Aids is the number one cause of death for pregnant women and children in Zimbabwe. In an era of massive funding and attention for HIV treatment such a situation is unacceptable.

“We can not talk of universal access when mothers and children have little access to basic services and continue being denied HIV services.”

But for the ARV Swallows playing football in the rain is part of the fight.

 

Wongai Zhangazha

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