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.
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.Voices of Our Future 2011 Assignment: Frontline Journals