Laboring for Change
This story is part of a series exploring maternal health and reproductive rights across the world.
Click on the stories below to hear from other women on the front lines of calling for an end to a globalized war on women.
ZAMBIA: Only I Remain
The dawn of the new millennium coincided with the enactment of the national AIDS bill in Parliament. The National Aids Council was established to coordinate the actions of all segments of government and society in the fight against HIV/ AIDS and is in charge of guiding the implementation of the National HIV and AIDS Strategic Framework (AVERT Zambia).
Within this framework, the council launched the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) program. Though the HIV virus is mostly transmitted through unprotected sexual acts, children who are born from infected mothers are at high risk of getting infected at birth and through breastfeeding, as was the case with my siblings. The project aimed to test all expectant mothers for HIV and put those found positive on antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) to weaken the virus and prevent the babies from infection during birth. The project proved effective and today every clinic that offers prenatal care has to provide counseling and testing to all expectant mothers.
When the PMTCT program started, most women shunned the services. When I was expecting my first child I saw some women refuse even the counseling services. Such incidences forced the government to introduce mandatory counseling to encourage mothers to undergo testing, although testing still remains voluntary for all expectant mothers.
PMTCT programs today have made headway. According to the UNICEF 2010 HIV/AIDS report, the number of women who have received testing for HIV has jumped from 12% in 2004 to 95% in 2009. These statistics show that women are learning more about the virus and prevention, resulting in reduced mortality rates in Zambia.
In addition, in 2004 late President Levy Mwanawasa introduced free antiretroviral drugs, including pediatric drugs, to prolong the lives of infected children.
Despite the introduction of PMTCT and better access to ARVs, there are still incidences of newborn infections where expectant mothers fail to adhere to treatment during pregnancy.
Despite all the government efforts to combat the HIV virus and protect future generations, the infection rate in Zambia has still remained high, hovering around 14% of a population of 13 million. High levels of poverty where over 65% of people survive on less than a dollar a day, alcohol abuse, and cultural pressures are the major contributors to the high infection rates.
There is much work to be done and many NGOs see women as the agents of healing and change. They have embarked on empowering women financially and academically, and the government aims to ensure 40% representation of women in Parliament to ensure that the voices of women are heard. All these efforts are yet to fully materialize and I look forward to a day when women and children will be truly liberated from the HIV/AIDS scourge.
To honor my late family, I have opted to speak out on the virus. Change begins with me. I am on a personal campaign to encourage women to get tested and to replace ignorance with knowledge; shame with liberty.