S-E-X.

Three simple innocent letters of the alphabet.

But when put together, the word they form - sex - hangs heavy with connotations of promiscuity and shame around the necks of many of Zimbabwe’s women.

I can still remember that day in 2004 when I heard that a childhood friend had killed herself because of sex. Not only was it sex, but sex of the unprotected variety which had led to a pregnancy she was not ready to deal with. In the letter she wrote that remained to explain her actions, she told how the thought of her devout Christian parents learning that sex had tainted her world was more shame than she could ever bear.

“We could have found a much less painful way to deal with the issue,” wept her mother as she nuzzled her tear-soaked face against my own mother’s neck.

If my friend had only known that, she might still be here today. But because no one ever talks about sex, many women suffer in silence.

And some even die.

H-I-V.

The alphabet song we learnt as little girls and boys taught us to sing H-I-J, not H-I-V. Maybe it’s because of that misplaced last letter that we Zimbabweans are so violently against discussing this epidemic; because HIV misplaces the natural order of our lives. During the many field trips I have undertaken to interview communities on HIV and AIDS, I have always heard the same stigmatising sentiments and misinformation about what HIV is, and what it can and cannot do.

No one story is more firmly lodged in my mind than that of Salimina, a young woman of 22 whom I met in the rural town of Chiredzi in 2007. Salimina was the mother of a five-year-old boy and rented a room in a small house that accommodated five other families. As we entered her claustrophobically tiny bedroom, it was not only the pungency of the smell of incessant diarrhoea that met our senses, but also that of spoilt promise.

Salimina was bed-ridden because of persistent sickness, including diarrhoea. She was widowed and had recently lost her nine-month-old daughter to a long illness. The signs were obvious. But she didn’t want to confront them. She wouldn’t test for HIV and instead chose to lie in her bed, mounted on a set of cement bricks, her thinning body propped up by rotting pieces of foam: her makeshift mattress.

For her, the agony of this present state was far more tolerable than the thought of HIV coursing through her blood.

Salimina was only one year younger than I was, but she had seen more pain than I was able to fathom. “If only she might go to an HIV counselling and testing centre, she might know her status and get help,” I kept saying to myself.

But maybe, in her own mind, she was already dead.

HIV - just like sex - is a phenomenon so often experienced secretly; a subject that most Zimbabweans are not yet willing to broach even though the need for this, especially among our women, is obvious.

According to current national statistics, Zimbabwe’s HIV prevalence among adults aged 15-49 years is around 14%. Prevalence among pregnant women stands at about 16%, suggesting that HIV infection within this group is higher than in the general population. But since the majority of pregnant women are routinely offered HIV counselling and testing as part of antenatal care services, they are more likely to know their HIV status than anyone else in the population.

Still, the facts speak for themselves. HIV continues to affect women in Zimbabwe disproportionately to men. In 2009, an estimated 60% of HIV-positive Zimbabwean adults were women and even more disconcerting was that more than three-quarters of all Zimbabweans living with HIV aged 15 to 24 years were young women.

All these statistics remind us that contrary to the way that we speak about HIV, it is not a passing whisper upon the breeze. Instead, it is that loud clanging noise grating against the door of our consciences. It is that venom drunk in silence that is killing our men, children, but even more so, the bearers of life itself - women. And young women, the hope of our nation, are affected more than anyone else.

But why, you might ask is this so when HIV is a treatable and manageable disease. Why are women, like Salimina, willing to forfeit their lives and waste away in ignorance?

Stigma and discrimination form two of the greatest underlying currents - and obstacles - within the response to HIV and AIDS in Zimbabwe. Stigma is the negative thoughts and sentiments that one has towards people living with HIV, while discrimination is the physical manifestation of those thoughts – the separation of cutlery, the chasing away of a woman from her home, the beatings; the killings.

One woman I once had the opportunity to interview at Zimbabwe’s largest haven for survivors of domestic violence, Musasa Project, epitomised this painful discrimination. Her name was Sekai, a cruelly ironic name that means, in the local Shona language, to laugh at someone or something. Sekai was a married woman who had found out that she had HIV just before the AIDS-related death of her second son, a frail boy who had barely enjoyed life for the three years that he had lived. In her quest to understand his sickness, Sekai had decided to get tested for HIV and finding her results to be positive, informed her husband.

Her punishment for this information was a beating all over her body and the complete loss of the respect of her husband who reckoned that she had gotten infected due to her own promiscuity. Denying the possibility that he too might be infected, he chose to distance himself from his wife and sons, claiming that they were unclean because of the virus. Sekai told me about how he bought separate bars of soap, cups, plates and forks for them to use and how he stopped paying anything towards the children’s upkeep needs. She also shared how, in her baby son’s last weeks, she had to sell the few clothes she had and place her son on her back to walk the merciless kilometres to the nearest clinic that could provide something to soothe his pain. By that time, he had lost use of all his senses and was a complete invalid.

In my mind, I can still see Sekai pausing at this moment of her narration to cup her face with her hands. She sobs softly – her tears forming rivulets that race down her cheeks, past her scar-red lipstick and down into her chest, where a burdened heart beats. My stomach still pinches together with sadness when I think of what she had to endure. Her own death might not have been physical, but Sekai was dying all the same, and I know she continues to die every day of her life.

With no job and no other family, she is simply forced by circumstance to stay and endure the cruelty of this man. Hers is the dark story of many women living with HIV in Zimbabwe who endure all forms of atrocities because they are shackled, like slaves, by culture and other inescapable situations.

Even if they want to flee their plight, these women have no support. As donor funding continues to wane in Zimbabwe due to the well-documented socio-economic strife, the prospects of more support from women’s help organisations is less and less likely. Furthermore, the landmark piece of legislation enacted to guarantee women’s social protection, the 2007 Domestic Violence Act, continues to experience many implementation challenges. These challenges include poor funding to translate (into local languages) and disseminate the Act more widely, as well as to employ the various arbitrating councillors that the Act makes provisions for.

Also, the controversial status of sex within our society cannot be ignored for ours is a country, like many others, that glorifies male virility and views female sexuality as vile and uncouth.

One of the key drivers of HIV in southern Africa is the phenomenon known as multiple and concurrent partnerships (MCPs) which refers to relationships, usually of a sexual nature, that happen between more than two people. Study findings from 2009 showed that in Zimbabwe, almost 11% of the adult population was engaging in such relationships. Condom use was often irregular.

Even more worryingly, the MCP trend has been seen to be more prevalent among married or co-habiting male adults and unmarried younger women in what are referred to as cross-generational relationships. This is one of the factors that have made young women, as mentioned previously, so vulnerable to HIV infection.

Ironically, it is the married woman who often suffers most for disclosing an HIV positive status. Her crime? Most of the time, her ‘crime’ is simply getting tested during pregnancy and returning home to her husband with the news of a positive test. Suddenly, she becomes the ‘whore’ worthy of spite, even though there is the high possibility that she did not bring the virus into the relationship.

If only we could talk more openly and honestly about sex and HIV; about culture, norms and traditions. If only we could stop stigmatising and vilifying and for once try to understand rather than condemn. HIV is a social, political and economic disease. But most of all it is a sexual infection, at least in Zimbabwe, that affects more women than men.

These women need to be empowered to understand their own sexual and reproductive health rights and to feel protected by social and legal systems in case of any harm that might be inflicted upon them. Sadly, our policy environment is glaringly vacant when it comes to supporting such causes. Yes, the laws do exist. But what is a law without actions?

Our men also need to also be empowered within this process. They need to become the agents of change who challenge age-old traditions and beliefs about masculinity. They need to protect us; not in a condescending way that perpetuates patriarchy but in that loving, sensitive and accommodative manner that implies respect.

In short, we can’t continue to keep secrets when people die publicly. They die physically, socially and emotionally. They die because of unspoken three-letter words buried deep within our nation’s conscience like a discomforting splinter - always perceptible, always painful – but yet never important enough to dislodge.

For me, that splinter sits uneasily - at times wedged between the folds my heart, and at other times, slicing through the flesh of my tongue.

Yes, it causes me pain, but I must speak.

It hurts my heart but still, I must feel.

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

Take action! This post was submitted in response to Voices of Our Future 2011 Assignment: Frontline Journals.

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Comments

I'm very impressed by this text, Fungai. Truly inspiring. I couldn't agree more with the points you've made.

I also noticed that, although we chose different topics for our assignment (you chose HIV and I chose abortion), the negative consequences both of the topics have relate to the heavy connotations of promiscuity that are implied when we talk about sex.

"In short, we can’t continue to keep secrets when people die publicly. They die physically, socially and emotionally. They die because of unspoken three-letter words buried deep within our nation’s conscience like a discomforting splinter - always perceptible, always painful – but yet never important enough to dislodge." - This paragraph, as well as your suggestion to involve men in the process of making gender equality and the importance we place on debate have a lot in common with the point I have tried to make in my assignment.

I am very happy to bump into this text and find such a like-minded voice in you.

All the best! And congratulations!

Thaís Moraes

Hi Fungai,

Congratulations! You have finally done it - really interesting article about HIV.

Love, Sarvina

Regards, Sarvina from Cambodia VOF 2011 Correspondent

Sorry I couldn't post a draft as I was really unwell last week and was struggling to complete the assignment! Thank youf the support :)

from today i live out of my imagination i am more than my yesterday tomorrow i plant a new seed nothing that lies behind easy nothing that is ahead real my within is all i have today Napo Masheane

Fungai, I adore this piece. I would also quote the same line Thais picked up - "In short, we can’t continue to keep secrets when people die publicly...." You hit the bulls-eye, girl! We cannot be silent while we confront consequences in alarmingly glaring proportions! SEX and HIV should be talked about in healthy, candid, meaningful, informative and helpful ways. Although we don't have much problem on HIV/AIDS in the Philippines, but, still, it is a threat because we have dealt with such cases (although isolated), too. But sex, oh yes, the fact that it's taboo to talk about it, particularly among women, really complicate matters a lot. We need to talk about things that make or break our existence, and sex is really one important issue we cannot ignore as women. And yes, we need to involve our men with our thoughts, our feelings, our ideals ... because that is the only way to preserve humanity! My salute, Fungai!

Always, Emie Zozobrado

After travelling and having to write 11 000 words of assignments, I felt as though all of my faculties had gone into shutdown. I wondered how I could give the women of Zimbabwe the respect that they deserved when I was so mentally and physically exhausted myself.

I did not want to write for writing's sake. That is NOT the point of this great privilege to be a VOF correspondent. And I had the amazing support of my editorial midwife who told me to take time to heal my body first before trying to speak.

And when I did just that, the voice began to raise, the emotions began to stir and the faces began to become more clear and distinct and real.

The lesson I learnt with this assignment is that if the messenger is not well, the message will not be conveyed well. I learnt to value again the power of my own voice and to appreciate that it needs nurturing to remain strong. I do not speak only for myself. I speak for many other women out there. And that is a privilege and honour, my sister. Let us never forget this!

from today i live out of my imagination i am more than my yesterday tomorrow i plant a new seed nothing that lies behind easy nothing that is ahead real my within is all i have today Napo Masheane

Hi Fungai! Did you know that when I started the journey in September 2010 I was shattering? I was losing my job of ten long years because of the change of administration in my country (new president, new politics, new whatever...!). I was jobless at the start of the decade. What I thought was a horror intervention in my life turned out to be one glorious moment of a much-deserved, long overdue rest. I never realized how tired and exhausted I was until I was forced to take a break. I was not broken, though, amazingly it was a welcome chance to be still... Well, I got my job back last week. And I'm real glad there was the World Pulse community during the most inconvenient silence of my life! The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak! This is very very true! I found the spirit in World Pulse and simultaneously my flesh was enlivened by all the enthusiasm and support from all of you guys! I really cannot thank you enough!

Always, Emie Zozobrado

Now that is incredible. I am glad you got your job back, but that must have been agony. But WP is such an amazing community and we are all better for it - stronger, enlightened and motivated.

I owe your Frontline Journal and other posts a good read Emie. I will get on to it soon, I promise. Much love

from today i live out of my imagination i am more than my yesterday tomorrow i plant a new seed nothing that lies behind easy nothing that is ahead real my within is all i have today Napo Masheane

Oh well, that's how politics works! And WP was a great treat during my critical moments. Anyway, yes, we have all been very busy during the holidays and year-end rush. In fact, I found the chance to sit down and read the journals of other correspondents when I was done with all the Module 2 assignments (and there were three, my gosh! The optional assignment was such a long one, too!). Take your time, Fungai! You've had such a hectic ride in 2010 and you deserve to go slow a bit as we start another busy year! All the best...

Always, Emie Zozobrado

Fungai it is very sad about your friend and many other people in our planet.....my cousin died at 35 from HIV and this piece is very powerful for me.

Con afecto

Martha

Con afecto Martha Llano martha.llano@icloud.com

marthallano.wix.com/serna

HAGA ALGO........ lo que lo haga feliz!

Y tan sólo recuerde que las soluciones a problemas globales dependen de cada individuo.

Yeah, many people die because of the fear of what people will say or think.

How so very sad... This is why WE must speak!

from today i live out of my imagination i am more than my yesterday tomorrow i plant a new seed nothing that lies behind easy nothing that is ahead real my within is all i have today Napo Masheane

The lives of Sekai and Salimina illustrate the unfairness of stigma and discrimination. Nowourdays a major risk factor for women is being married. There was once a time when marriage afforded one protection, but now because of infidelity, women are continuously being infected by their partners. It is the same in the United States as well, especially with "down low", men who have sex with men but do not identify themselves as gay. It is unfortunate because innocent children get caught in the mess. Your words were eloquent and powerful! As someone who is in the field, I am grateful for women like you who present the truth and stir consciences to action. Great job!!! Hugz!!

Blog: Threads of Our Fabric Project

Thanks Sharon! I have taken your survey and hope that my insights will be of use to you. Hugs back at you :)

from today i live out of my imagination i am more than my yesterday tomorrow i plant a new seed nothing that lies behind easy nothing that is ahead real my within is all i have today Napo Masheane

The lives of Sekai and Salimina illustrate the unfairness of stigma and discrimination. Nowourdays a major risk factor for women is being married. There was once a time when marriage afforded one protection, but now because of infidelity, women are continuously being infected by their partners. It is the same in the United States as well, especially with "down low", men who have sex with men but do not identify themselves as gay. It is unfortunate because innocent children get caught in the mess. Your words were eloquent and powerful! As someone who is in the field, I am grateful for women like you who present the truth and stir consciences to action. Great job!!! Hugz!!

Blog: Threads of Our Fabric Project

Fungai,

Your piece is phenomenal! Your imagery and descriptions are so powerfully expressive, I felt incredibly moved. You have highlighted the humanity and suffering of women stigmatized and silenced by HIV and brought it into the global conversation. And as well as being beautifully crafted, your piece is also very informative. Congratulations on writing such a great assignment for Module II!

Well done, I look forward to reading more from you!

Hope this finds you well, Laura

Dear Laura,

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I am really happy that you feel that it aptly paints a picture for you in your own mind as I did struggle for a while to write this piece. My main concern was how to convey these very real situations which oftentimes get lost in statistics and all the jargon. Being able to bring real examples of the situation is so so important. We must never forget that real people live these nightmares and need our help.

Many thanks again :)

from today i live out of my imagination i am more than my yesterday tomorrow i plant a new seed nothing that lies behind easy nothing that is ahead real my within is all i have today Napo Masheane

It's always great to read your journal Fungai. It's amazing how you always capture my mind like a magnet each time I venture into your readings. I hope school is going well and your body has fully recovered. I look forward to reading more of your works.

Rudzanimbilu Muthambi

Thanks so much Ru,

Your words of encouragement always help to light up my day :) You really do motivate me to keep going and I want to say THANK YOU from the bottome of my heart for that.

God bless you dear sis :)

from today i live out of my imagination i am more than my yesterday tomorrow i plant a new seed nothing that lies behind easy nothing that is ahead real my within is all i have today Napo Masheane

Hi Fungai,

Just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed reading your piece. Your writing is so powerful. The way you weave in personal details with the "hard facts" is great... I am really impressed.

I hope that day by day people can start to break the silence around HIV, sex, and start to live in peace... your words show us a way forward.

Thanks! Scott

Scott Beck

Yes, I hope for the same. Keep us posted on the planned parenthood debate. Thanks for the post on FB on Friday as that's what alerted me to the situation.

Was having a conversation with someone about it and she said how said it was that women were always the ones vilified for committing physical abortion when men so often committed social abortion. That was some powerful statement.

from today i live out of my imagination i am more than my yesterday tomorrow i plant a new seed nothing that lies behind easy nothing that is ahead real my within is all i have today Napo Masheane

Wow Fungai....My dad died of the same dreaded disease and 5years later,my step mom died before my very eyes again of the same devil....my little brother was blessed...i took him to be tested at three years when i took custody of him and he lives healthily today....How I have thought of how proud my dad would have been today,seeing his grand children...i get so angry at how his denial of the disease led t his premature death....if only he had taken ownership of his mistakes and made different choices....he thought he had been bewitched...in a sense it was true...but the treatment he sought was wrong...the witch was the disease...not a human being.....

However...there is hope...thank God for His word that causes us to triumph....I know there is total healing in Christ Jesus....Divine health is possible for all who believe...get Gods word into your spirit and let i work in you....here is a link where you can go a listen to the word of God... http://www.christembassy.org/en/dailyaudiodevotional/?tag=pastor-chris-t...

And even if you don't believe in the same God that I am talking about...there is still hope....hope has come..because we now have a voice......thank you All you women and children,men too,who have stood up and asked for help...Thank you to all who have step forward and offered the help,whether in treatment(ARVs),in counselling, in provision of much needed basics,prayer and just being there to listen...THANK YOU

C.K.Soutter

There is a feature that I did on one of my friends whose parents also died on AIDS. It's called Survival and Revival: The Story of Delta's Spirit and you can find it in my journal. The human spirit is really something amazing.

Yes, there are some heroes in the work of HIV and AIDS, unsung heroes whose selflessness is just amazing. They need to be celebrated. I am glad that your little brother is healthy and that he has someone to take care of him in you. God is good!

Thank you for the link. Indeed, God is good ALL THE TIME!

Be blessed xxx

from today i live out of my imagination i am more than my yesterday tomorrow i plant a new seed nothing that lies behind easy nothing that is ahead real my within is all i have today Napo Masheane