Posted June 9, 2006 – When she was 19 years old, Inviolata Mwali Mmbwavi discovered she had AIDS. Having lived with the infection for more than a decade now, she still wonders why women, unlike men, must endure the stigma, isolation and discrimination associated with disease.
“Stigma and discrimination are the biggest challenges in the fight against AIDS,” Mmbwavi said recently during a trip to the United States. “Stigma leads to untimely death, fear of knowing one’s status, lowering self-esteem, intimidation. I had kept it private for many years.”
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Then one day Mmbwavi saw a newspaper article advertising services for HIV positive people at the Red Cross, and she visited the relief agency to learn more.
“I am alive today,” Mmbwavi says, noting that the information she received helped her overcome negative feelings about herself as well as poverty.”
This was the first time Mmbwavi told anybody about her personal battle. And for the first time, “I was an empowered woman,” she says.
Now Mmbwavi is on a mission to shatter the walls of ignorance about the deadly disease.
She spends countless hours in her native Kenya emphasizing that knowledge can save lives.
Women flock to her office to express their No. 1 concerns about living with AIDS: their ability to care for their children, buy food, find housing, and address their basic life needs.
She also takes her life-saving advice to other parts of the world.
During her visit to Washington, D.C. late last month, Mmbwavi was joined by other women AIDS activists at a, news conference sponsored by the Centre for Development of Population Activities, a group dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls throughout the world.
One of those activists is Tendayi Westerhof, a thirty-something Zimbabwean fashion model and head of Public Personalities Against AIDS Trust, who also spends her days fighting the barriers that prevent women from protecting themselves against infection.
“Like others in Zimbabwe, I was also lacking much knowledge about AIDS,” says Westerhof, who went to be tested in a disguise after learning that her famous soccer coach husband was HIV positive. “I had no idea what having HIV meant at the time I discovered I was infected. But I learned.
“Eventually, I began to wonder why there was so much silence from public figures in Zimbabwe who could have such an impact in the fight against AIDS. I saw that if prominent people talk openly and candidly, it could be a great influence on public opinion and behavior.”
In Westerhof’s country, like in many parts of Africa, longstanding cultural practices have only fueled the epidemic. “…Polygamy, girl pledging, widow inheritance and chiramu (brothers-in-law having sexual rights over their wives’ younger sisters) make women vulnerable to HIV infection within marriage,” she says.
But, unfortunately, AIDS in Zimbabwe, Kenya and other parts of the world is more than a cultural or health issue. It’s also a human rights and an economic one.
Mmbwavi tells of a pending court case in Kenya in which a woman was fired from her job after her employer forced her to undergo a company medical exam that later showed she tested positive for AIDS. The reason for the exam? Her husband, an employee of the same company, had recently died of AIDS complications.
Now poverty stricken, and still waiting for the government’s verdict in her case, the woman, languishes in “untold” suffering, Mmbwavi says.
But organizations like the Centre for Development and Population Activities remind those in the United States that the ignorance and inhumanity thrust upon those with AIDS are just as prevalent here.
In the United States, women die from AIDS at twice the rate of men, and African-American women account for more than half of all AIDS cases among women, even though they only account for 7 percent of the overall population, according to Yolonda Richardson, president and CEO of the Centre at the organization’s recent “Global Face of AIDS” news conference.
“After more than two decades, it has become clear that we will not be successful in the fight against AIDS unless we address the epidemic’s impact on women,” she adds.
Women and children need protection against traditional practices of sexual coercion, violence, child marriage, female genital mutilations, and widow inheritance,” Richardson continues.
“We will not turn around the epidemic unless we take bold actions that redirect policies, funding and programs to reflect the global face of AIDS—which is increasingly women and girls,” she says.