Positive women fight negative reactions

The United Nations has designated this year, for the first time
since 1990, the International Year of Women with HIV and Aids. A
staggering 19 million women are now affected not just by the
illness combined with acute poverty but also by a lack of access to
treatment as a result of their second-class citizenship.

Many in Africa, for example, learn about their HIV status when they
attend an antenatal clinic. Often, their husband or mother-in-law
is informed first. The woman may be sterilised or undergo an
abortion without consultation. Men are rarely tested, so they
side-step being identified and blamed, unlike a mother-to-be.

Campaigning group The International Community of Women with HIV and
Aids (ICW) is determined this year to tackle the lack of sexual,
reproductive, legal and financial female rights. For instance, the
World Health Organisation has set a target of 3 million receiving
treatment by 2005. The ICW is campaigning to ensure that 50 per
cent are HIV-positive women and girls.

At present, 49 per cent of those with HIV are female; a rise to 70
per cent is predicted in 10 years. ICW was founded in 1992 by 56
women who no longer wished to be marginalised. Forty-three have
since died. But the ICW fights on.

The ICW says gender bias is not only a problem in the developing
world, it manifests itself here too in policy-making and the
attitudes of some professional providers. “Jane” was diagnosed 14
years ago. A campaigner, she is open about her status overseas, but
has chosen to remain unidentified in this country until her
children have left home.

“We’re weary, for instance, of being asked to attend meetings as an
after-thought, to stand up and provide a personal testimony but
little else,” she says. “The issue of ‘how I got infected’ matters
far less than ‘what I did next’. We want to be included from the
outset in deciding agendas, taking decisions and ensuring their

Another challenge to professionals is that many HIV-positive women
remain underground, terrified of becoming a family and community
leper. “I’ve met middle-class British grandmothers in their fifties
whose husbands travelled for business or with the army,” Jane says.
“They are now widows with HIV and daren’t tell their children about
their status for fear, for instance, that they’ll be forbidden to
cuddle their grandchildren. That has to change. Some of us have
been positive women for years. It’s time we were involved.”

– Go to www.icw.org

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