“Woman’s suicide” reminder of HIV stigma

In Uncategorized on August 5, 2010 at 6:31 am

“Woman’s suicide” reminder of HIV stigma
By Zarina Geloo 16-10-2009

The newspaper headline signaled the tragedy. The story below gave an elaborate and compassionate account of how 41-year-old Linda Kabengele committed suicide after her community continually stigmatised her due to her HIV-status. Her charred body was found still smoldering, as she lay dead near a tavern. Next to her was a photograph of her child, her handbag and some anti-retrovirals
There were tut tuts followed by sympathetic noises from the public. The most striking reaction however, came from the National AIDS Council spokesperson Justine
Mwiinga. Responding to a reporter from the Zambia Daily Mail on the suicide, he said stigma was not as bad as before and implied that Kabengele was an isolated incident.
Mwiinga added that the negative attitudes towards people with HIV were generally going away. More strikingly he said, “Whatever the case, stigma is not among the six main drivers; it is not a serious threat to the extent it used to be.” Perhaps Mwiinga spoke generally, but the reality tells quite a different story.
It is an uncomfortable fact for many people who work in and around HIV and AIDS to accept that over 20 years after the start of the pandemic, despite billions of dollars thrown into campaigns and projects, and thousands
of AIDS service organisations set up, stigma is still alive and well. Moreover, it affects women particularly.
The haunting words of Winston Zulu, the first Zambian
to disclose his status, sums up what stigma feels like. “I fight HIV, but then I also fight the stigma, because HIV itself can attack your gut, it can attack your brain sometimes, it attacks your immune system, but the biggest

attack comes from people outside,” he said. “People think that because you are HIV-positive, you must have been a sex-worker or a gay man, or you must have been loose with your life. And that, sometimes, is even more difficult to deal with than dealing with the virus itself.”
A research by CARE in Zambia shows that stigma against women with HIV range from subtle actions to the most extreme degradation, rejection and abandonment. Kabelenge had become the object of taunts, mockery and laughter and had to be given a room at a school in her community where she slept alone, fuelling her feeling of isolation and rejection. The study further notes that women with HIV, and pregnant women assumed to be HIV positive, repeatedly suffer extensive forms of stigma, particularly once they become sick or if their child dies. Studies in Zambia show that women not only are more heavily stigmatised than men, they are also blamed for bringing HIV into the family or marriage.
It reminds me of a colleague, journalist Mildred Mpundu, who before she died disclosed her HIV status. She talked of how she left her employment at a newspaper because she felt stigmatised by her colleagues. Ironically, Mpundu worked for the first media house in Zambia to formulate an HIV work place policy and offer counseling and free anti-retroviral treatment.
“It’s not that I was the only one with HIV, there were others, men mostly, but they were not talked about the way I was. I was button-holed, labeled and increasingly isolated,” she said in one of the flurry interviews she gave before she died.
Mpundu’s knowledge and long association with HIV strengthened her emotionally and she withstood stigma, but this is not to say that there were not times when she thought about taking her life.
Interestingly, when another male journalist Christopher Mulenga went public about his status, the reporting was succinct and dealt with the issue in a perfunctory manner. When Mpundu came out, she became the HIV poster girl of the media. A newspaper produced a special supplement, most of it dedicated to her past choices of partners that culminated
in her contracting HIV and the usual “before” and “after”pictures. Why was Mpundu’s story more interesting than Mulenga’s? Juliet Maundi from the Network of People Living with HIV and AIDS offers a reason. Mpundu was a woman and a single parent. “It’s worse when a woman is unmarried because then the assumption is that she was sleeping around and infecting numerous partners. It’s about heaping blame on women for the relationships in which they get infected.”

Mpundu and Kabelenge were not rural women, they lived in urban towns surfeit with HIV and AIDS messaging,
information and programmes. Their communities were well aware of the dangers of stigma, but still they suffered. So how else can things be done? Well for starters,
no matter what the statistics say, we should put stigma back on the list of drivers of HIV, or at the very least, acknowledge that stigma is still a very big factor in HIV infection. Messages and information should target particularly the stigmatisation of women with HIV.
Maundi says it irritates her to see AIDS messages literally cover the walls of ante-natal clinics and health centres where women usually congregate. “They don’t have the same posters covering the walls of bars or places where men are found,” she points out. “It gives the impression that HIV is about women and yet both need the information, men more so because they are usually the first to blame women for HIV infection and are in the forefront in stigmatising women.”
Information and messages on stigma should also be prominent and stand alone, not as a side bar to HIV messages. There should be very strong clear messages that stigma is as bad as knowingly infecting someone with HIV.
People who stigmatise should be subject to the same legal process and punishment as human rights violators. AIDS organisations need to step up their watchdog role and apportion adequate time and resources to curbing stigma. In the case of Kabelenge when it became apparent
that she was being stigmatised, local authorities and AIDS activists should have used the opportunity to advocate for the protection and care of people infected with HIV and also forced the community to face up to its bad behaviour. Kabelenge’s suicide is a chilling reminder that we should not be complacent about stigma, we should not take comfort in general statistics indicating that it is not one of the six drivers of HIV infection.
More importantly, it should not be overlooked that it is the women that are bearing the brunt of stigma.
Zarina Geloo writes from Zambia. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.


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