By Eunice Kilonzo
On December 1, you may be one of the millions globally who will be wearing a red ribbon to mark World Aids Day. I will be wearing one in solidarity with about 16 million adults living with HIV are women according to the World Health Organisation. Further, according to Centre for Disease Control, Sub-Saharan Africa bears the biggest burden of HIV/AIDS, with almost 70% of the global total of new HIV infections for 2013. As a Kenyan, the HIV burden is tremendous as we are ranked fourth in the world in new infections.
For this piece, I will look at how AWDF has partnered with organizations advocating for women rights, and specifically those working on HIV/Aids.
One of these organisations is Cameroon Women’s Medical Association. According to statistics, in at least four out of ten Cameroonians between the ages of 15-49, are living with HIV. In addition, about 57% of the 1.47 million pregnant women living with HIV in the French speaking country are estimated to received most regimens of antiretroviral medicine to prevent mother-to-child transmission.
To take this discussion further, I interviewed the Cameroon Women Medical Association head Dr Gladys Enih Fosah Tayong.
Q: What does World AIDs Day it mean to your organisation?
Our organisation runs with the theme “Focus, Partner, Achieve: An AIDS-free Generation.” Therefore, each year we look at our contributions to national and global responds to HIV in a bid to provide a comprehensive HIV/AIDS package.
During the day we carry out activities like voluntary counseling and testing, HIV /AIDS awareness campaigns, and radio talks on the national radio, television spots. Our ongoing projects include counseling/referrals and capacity building for staff on HIV.
Q: Most African countries reported their first HIV cases in the early 1980’s. That makes the condition over 30 years old. What has been your memorable moment in HIV intervention?
Our HIV/AIDS counselor had a case last year during a voluntary counseling and testing campaign.
After pre-test counseling, blood collection and analysis, the results of the married woman were positive. During the post-test counseling, the lady cried: “Oh God why me? What will I tell my husband? How will I live my life? It’s better to die than to live.”
Her husband was called up for couple counseling and was also encouraged to take the test. He was negative. This discordant result made the husband to accuse his wife of infidelity.
It has been difficult for the couple to live together. However, our continuous follow up has encouraged the husband to accept his wife’s positive status.
Q: How is prevalent is HIV infections through mother to child transmission in Cameroon?
In 2013 Nationally, HIV transmission from mother to child when child is tested at six weeks of age is 6.3% and 6.7% in the North West region where we are.
Our minister of public health signed a ministerial order that ensures that when pregnant women are tested positive for HIV they are immediately given ART. This we believe will reduce the MTCT of HIV.
Very few HIV positive Women do not breastfeed their babies in Cameroon. HIV positive women are encouraged to adopt exclusive breastfeeding for six months.
Q: Do women who do not breastfeed their children face stigma?
Yes, their family members, especially mother in-laws and friends, ostracize those that do not breastfeed. Consequently, their infants have a greater risk of dying of diarrhea and other causes that are not related to HIV.
Q: What myths and cultural practices make your work difficult?
People still believe it is not possible for a discordant couple to live together and have HIV negative babies. The women suffer the highest effect as their husbands who are negative, neglect them for other women or bring in other woman who will satisfy them sexually. This triggers domestic and sexual violence.
Also when we talk on women’s sexual rights it seems we are bringing in a bad practice. In Cameroon, a woman is suppose to be very humble when it comes to sex, while the man is the one to insist on when to have sex, when to use condoms, use of contraceptives, and even number of children to have.
Q: How has the assistance from AWDF helped you promote the rights of African Women on the African Continent?
African Women Development Fund is currently one of our main partners, and they have greatly contributed to the success of our organization in terms of programs, organizational growth and impact on our target population.
We received funding for World AIDS day activities in 2011, and another funding to reinforce the sexual and reproductive health and economic empowerment of women living with HIV in 2012/2013. We have signed a new agreement for the 2nd phase of the project to scale up interventions to reinforce the sexual and reproductive health and economic status of Women living with HIV.
Q: The impact made so far?
Through these diverse support programs, over 700 people have known their status, informed on safe sex practices. We have been able to give loans to 10 women living with HIV positive.
The economic empowerment of HIV positive women is one of the most successful interventions because this has reduced beneficiary dependence on our organization for medical and nutritional support. Indirect beneficiaries like the children of women living with HIV are able to go to school and feed well.
Q: Any challenges?
The major challenge we face in this program is that some of the loan beneficiaries often fall sick and are unable to engage in business for some period of time.
However, we support them to access timely treatment for their opportunistic infections.
Q: What does the future means for your organization?
We intend to reach out to commercial sex workers on HIV treatment and care services. On the same, we seek to create a rehabilitation center for children of sex workers in order to ensure the children rights are respected and basic needs such as education, health, clothing feeding is provided.
Develop a family planning program to subsidize family planning devices for women.
Voices of the loan beneficiaries:
I have been living with HIV for 6 years. I identified myself with CMWA a year now. I received 200,000 francs from CMWA and I was told it was provided by AWDF. I have used the money to improve my traditional dress marking business.
I have been able to buy more materials and I can now produce all types of traditional clothes and caps that I now sell to even international customers. It is good that this organisation works with women who are of HIV and provides support in many forms such as monetary and psychosocial.
I am also able to take care of my medical bills and schooling for my children. I am very grateful.
I am a hairdresser, living with HIV for 8 years. I became a member of CMWA a year ago. I am a beneficiary of this loan that is interest free. I was doing hair dressing with very little capital, but when I got the loan, I was able to buy more artificial hair and saloon equipment. I can now serve my customers better. I can also generate enough income to take care of my newborn baby who I exclusively breastfeed and my medical follow up.
Secondly, I have benefited knowledge on how to have an HIV negative child. While I was still ignorant on HIV and how to prevent mother to child transmission, I had two babies and they all died after delivery.
I decided never to have children again. I was encouraged by my friend who was working with CMWA to come and join them, I reluctantly did it but while participating in the support group meetings. I was educated on how to have an HIV negative child. My CD4 count was 788 and my doctor advised me to have another baby, which I did. Her HIV status will be confirmed next month.
I have been living with HIV for the past 3 years. Due to my poor health, I could not engage myself into productive activities. I started drying and selling vegetables. When I got the loan, I bought a machine and more fresh vegetables. Since then, the business has flourished very well and I supply in wholesale and also to “bush fallers” who come from abroad. The contribution of the loan to my family income cannot be overemphasised.
NB .All pictures taken with consent of beneficiaries
- Cameroon HIV and AIDS estimates(2013)
- Number of people living with HIV: 600,000 [560,000 – 650,000]
- Adults aged 15 to 49 prevalence rate: 4.3% [4.0% – 4.6%]
- Adults aged 15 and up living with HIV: 510,000 [470,000 – 550,000]
- Women aged 15 and up living with HIV: 300,000 [280,000 – 320,000]
- Children aged 0 to 14 living with HIV: 94,000 [83,000 – 110,000]
- Deaths due to AIDS: 44,000 [40,000 – 48,000]
- Orphans due to AIDS aged 0 to 17: 510,000 [140,000 – 560,000]