So I am to write about the nuances of living with HIV as a woman in Nigeria. My first thought was ‘ do you have time’? The issues leading up to and concerning the HIV + Nigerian women are many and multi-dimensional but they all point to one thing: culture. I will look at it from different angles, peppering it with true-life stories as we go along.People I have told about my illness always ask the same question initially: How did you get it? My answer is always I do not know. I was not particularly cautious about not sharing blades or clippers, etc., so it could have been contracted through those means. But if truth were to be told, I was not particularly careful about my sexual dalliances either. And this is my first ‘port of call’ on this topic: Prevention.I had sex with various people for several reasons ranging from fear to confusion. But the underlying reason was that I was clueless as to how to say NO. I have spoken extensively on this in my blog so I shall just rush through it here. Sexual abuse when i was 13/14 and the absence of sexual education in any form from my family provided excellent foundation for my vulnerability to sexual overtures from the opposite sex. Bereft of self-esteem and direction, it would be sex as they pleased, how they pleased. It is pertinent to point this out because the cultural and societal nuances at play in my life at that time are very prominent even today.The patriarchal nature of the Nigerian society and taboo around (the discussion of) women’s sexuality creates a very conducive environment for unhealthy relationships and high-risk behaviour on the part of women. Women are not taught to (or used to) negotiating the process of sex, not encouraged to purchase or carry condoms. Nigerian boys and men can be promiscuous and ‘sow their wild oats’ but girls and women are forbidden to speak about sexuality and are thrown into the world without any education whatsoever about their bodies or sexual health. Add to that a society that continuously emphasizes that a woman is nothing without a man by her side and you have a scene set for dangerous/fatal liaisons. To wit, if we are ever to prevent HIV in Nigeria, we need to critically assess our cultures’ sublime messages.I discovered my status when I was pregnant- I was/ am one of the lucky ones. A lot of women do not discover their status until it becomes very late, usually when they are very sick and/or dying. However, because it has become mandatory for pregnant women to be tested for HIV immediately they begin antenatal attendance, a few are lucky enough to catch it relatively early, and begin treatment. There is another side to this issue of Nigerian women discovering their status, the side that involves sex and partners. I found a common story thread among quite a number of women in my treatment centre. They had a partner-usually a husband- who was infected but hid it from them. While some began receiving treatment privately, a number of them (the husbands) did not until it was too late, and died of the disease, whereupon the wives would finally discover the HIV infection is the legacy the husband leaves for them and in some cases their offspring. Usually the method of transmission is sex, from an unfaithful husband, to his wife. Were a woman to suspect her husband of promiscuity and even suggest the use of a condom, it is very likely that the tables would turn and she would be either beaten into submission, be accused of infidelity and thrown out, be raped or all of these. This is usually for the lower class/ low income families that comprise the bulk of the patients at the treatment centre, and there is a slightly different reality for women in higher income families which I will attempt to define.Divorce is still considered a taboo in the Nigerian society, and a failure on the part of the woman. Of course for women who have married into wealth or are originally from wealthy families, the scandal and resultant loss of income is more than they can bear. The solution therefore is to keep up the appearance of marriage but cultivate and maintain illicit relationships outside the home. Unfortunately both partners have other partners and when HIV is introduced, it is spread.I should have been one of the lucky women who discovered and treated her illness early, but I was not; a victim of an unscrupulous doctor who under the guise of providing me convenient HIV treatment gave me drugs contraindicated in pregnancy, I never actually received care until 3 years later.In Nigeria, HIV treatment for women and men is basically the same: a swarm of people, converge on a centre on their designated day and endure 4-7 hours of waiting, rudeness and impatience from clinic workers. There is no respite for those who miss their designated days and there is no quick fix for those in a hurry. In some ways it is easier for men to make appointments than women. The reason is that a married woman living with HIV may have a difficult time explaining to her spouse and/or employer why she has to drop everything at a specific time every particular month or couple of months. A man may not face such difficulty.Another factor is wealth. In all my years of going to the centre I have not seen any patient who sounded as educated as I did, or who seemed to come from a higher income bracket than low-income earners. It therefore stands to reason, that despite the best efforts of the international donors, proper HIV treatment is more available for the rich than for the poor. Again, the odds are against the women who usually earn less than their male counterparts or are in control of less resources. Unfortunately, this also accounts for the increased rate of infection Nigeria is experiencing.This article will be incomplete without touching on love and relationships. I personally have avoided relationships ever since I was diagnosed- 5 years – for fear of rejection and stigmatization. I do not know that there will be many men who will hang on after you utter the dreaded letters.I know many things people will accept before they accept a Person Living With HIV/AIDS (PLWHA). But I recently heard about someone, another PLWHA  who is dating successfully even though he is upfront about his status on the first date. My centre has begun a sort of matchmaking service for people who want to get married but I have zero interest in that. Apart from the fact that I stick out like a sore thumb, I do not want a disease to be my reason for choosing a partner.

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Comments

Maryero- Your story is full of honesty and heart, and I appreciate you sharing such personal experience here. I know your words will touch many, and give hope as well. I can not imagine the difficulty of living with HIV/AIDS, taking into consideration all the factors you have discussed. How overwhelming.

What do you envision that would help other PLWHA? Where does one begin to address these issues, or which facet is foremost to be addressed? I hope you can find others within this community who share your struggle. I know you have many walking beside you here.

Let us Hope together- Michelle aka: Cali gal Listener Sister-Mentor @CaliGalMichelle facebook.com/caligalmichelle Tweets by @CaliGalMich

Dear Michelle

Please forgive me for responding so late. Internet access has been a bit of an issue as I went a bit out of civilization for a while. Thank you for your very kind words. If indeed my story touches anyone and causes healing, my work on earth is done. In answer to your question however, I think my solution would be to lift the barricade of secrecy that surrounds this illness. Secrecy is what causes stigmatisation, is what makes drugs and treatment centralised and barely accessible, it is what keeps people from seeking help. Individually, we can lift the barricade by educated but CASUAL conversation about this disease, not flippant talk comparing PLWHA to people srtarving in Somalia. We, the PLWHA can on our part live our lives fully without regard for gossip and sidetalk. We have to show that we are 'normal'. On the part of government, we should decentralize treatment and medication, making it much easier for someone to walk into practically any hospital and be counselled and treated.

These are my views on what we can do going forward.

Thanks again

Dear Maryero,

You are courageous. I read your piece and I was like wow! This is from a woman who has experienced the highs and the lows. You have come to terms with your status and not allowing society to define you and I think that that is very brave. Please continue to live life fearlessly. I am sure there are positive avenues for you to educate and raise awareness about the way HIV/Aids service provision can potentially be discriminatory against women because of the social issues you raise. I always thought the drugs for HIV are free so being poor should not matter but this has given me food for thought.

Bravo! Keep up speaking out and reaching out.

Best regards, Osai

Twitter: @livingtruely

Dear Osai

I am sorry for my late response, I had internet issues where I travelled to. Thank you for leaving such an encouraging comment.

I am glad I have been able to show a side to living with HIV that people had not anticipated. I am on the 'lookout' for such avenues for education and I hope they turn up soon.

Thanks so much

Dear Maryero, Your story is so encouraging. It is really very difficult to be so open in public. It is your courage and conviction that made it possible.wish you all the best in your life. With regards Amriyota

Hi Eliel

That's fantastic! The way forward is educating young people to care for themselves and I am so glad to have inspired that.

Well done! And thank you so much for stopping by.

Thank you very much for sharing this story,I must let you know that I have learn from your story,and this will help me to mentor people in my community.

Joy Eze

Hello Joy

Thank you for this message. Please keep doing the good work of mentoring your community. In this fight against HIV there can never be too much information.

God bless

I totally agree that your story is a full one. You have painted a picture devoid of sympathy yet with deep feelings of your emotions. Behind your words I sense the brave heart who is ready to do what it takes to help people with HIV discover themselves when stripped of every esteem by this disease. You are strong, yet you need love. I love the fact that you love yourself and have disallowed circumstances to dictate to you.

You are indeed a jewel. One thing struck me in your words and it is the illetracy of the literates in handling the disease in Nigeria. Many women are suffering in silence and it is painful that some do not have yourkind of heart. A story was told about a woman who was infected by her husband and was thrown out of her home after the husband died by relative who believe she was badluck. She also died 6 months later more of heartache and rejection than the disease.

Your voice is a fresh breath from the myriads of voices. For those of us who are not infected, we are indeed affected to see and help make sure that women are not made as scapegoats of this disease by bad management, poverty, and treatment from the society

Founder, Pink Ambition Blogger,Author, Coach,Speaker. http://www.pinkambition1.blogspot.com https://www.facebook.com/pinkambitions

/ Hi Funmi

You are so, so kind with your words. Honestly at some point I actually blushed. I could see a bit of your strengths as a speaker/coach shining through. Thank you so much.

The ordeal a lot of women experience because of HIV is a really serious issue. And as you said, they have no voice. I really believe I was made to experience this to become that voice and that is what I try to do. I hope and pray that together we can curb this misalignment in our society.

Thank you so much for your comment.