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
Despite efforts to educate the public and prevent transmission, Zambia’s HIV-infection rate hovers at 14%. Having lost her family to the pandemic, Voices of Our Future correspondent Chinemu has vowed to be an agent of healing and change.
“I’m on a personal campaign to encourage women to get tested and to replace ignorance with knowledge; shame with liberty.”
That Sunday, I came back from church feeling happy and looking forward to a visit with my brother at the orphanage. Before heading to the Mother Theresa’s home where my brother had been for almost a year, I rushed to the makeshift kitchen attached to my grandmother’s two-room house to get something to eat. As soon as I had finished, my granny called out to me. I hurried to her room to find her sitting on her old mattress sobbing. She hugged me tightly, in a way she hadn’t for a long time, and I couldn’t understand her gesture.
“Wasala weka! Wasala weka!” cried my granny as she held me tightly to her chest. She was saying, “Only you have remained!”
Still, I couldn’t understand. I loosened myself from her; she cried uncontrollably. It wasn’t until my aunt came wailing my brother’s name that I understood: My only surviving brother, Philip, had died. I stood motionless, tears running down my face. Memories of my late mother, father, and two other siblings flooded me as if their deaths had just happened.
I was now the only surviving member of a family of five.
My brother first became sick at the age of two, after my parents died. First to pass was my father in 1992, then my mother in 1993. The only explanation offered for my brother’s illness was that he was too young to cope without motherly love.
Despite Granny trying to fill my mother’s shoes, we lacked many basic necessities and my brother’s condition deteriorated, leaving Granny no option but to take him to Mother Theresa’s home, a Catholic orphanage that also offers medical care. For a year I only saw my brother once a week. During his first six months at the orphanage, his condition improved and we were hopeful. But as his one-year anniversary at the home approached, he died.
At the funeral home, I overhead some women talking about how AIDS had wiped out my family. They were questioning where my mother had contracted the virus and were accusing her of promiscuity.
“Nimatenda,” they said, meaning ‘It’s AIDS.’ “Look at how the husband died and now the children.” One woman, signaling in my direction with her eyebrows, said, “Maybe even this one is dying, too.”
Their conjectures greatly disturbed me. Throughout my brother’s funeral I was troubled, wondering how Mother, of all people, could have died from AIDS.
The women’s gossip instilled fear in me, and I started to believe I could be HIV positive and could die at any moment. Each time I saw I had lost weight I thought I was nearing my death day. To learn more about the disease, I started reading a lot of booklets on HIV/AIDS, about how it’s transmitted, and how it has no cure.
Later, I approached my granny on the topic and told her what I overheard during my brother’s funeral. She looked agitated and quickly changed the topic. AIDS was not something that was openly discussed. I let it go, but I did not give up.
Weeks passed and again I asked her about my family’s death. Her explanation was that my parents and three siblings had been bewitched by jealous relatives. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard such an explanation. Most deaths in my community were blamed on witchcraft.
For weeks I persisted until Granny finally confessed that the doctor at the orphanage had told her my brother had AIDS, though she never believed it.
“I knew my daughter. She could not die of AIDS. She was too decent to die of the disease,” Granny told me. “That’s what doctors do if they can’t find a disease; they always say its AIDS.” She warned me not to share the doctor’s remarks with anyone and assured me that I was not next to die because she had taken all precautions to prevent witches from reaching me.
This was the scenario in Zambia when the HIV/AIDS pandemic was discovered in the 1980s. No one openly talked about AIDS, and those found with the virus were stigmatized and regarded as promiscuous. Most people died silently without knowing their HIV status for fear of discrimination and name-calling.
Politicians too were reluctant to speak out on the growing pandemic. President Kenneth Kaunda’s announcement in 1987 that his son had died of AIDS was a notable exception and a milestone in breaking the silence. However it was not enough to curb the stigma there and then. In a culture that supports gender inequality, HIV prevalence is especially high among women and young girls. Women are taught never to refuse their husbands sex nor to insist on condom use. According to the AVERT HIV & AIDS report, a Zambian behavioral survey showed around 15% of women reported forced sex, although this may not be accurate since many women do not disclose this information. Women are also forced to hang on to promiscuous husbands because they lack the financial muscle to survive independently. Additionally women become sexually active earlier than men, with partners who are much older and who may have already had a number of sexual partners. Apart from being vulnerable to infection, women are the worst affected. They are the ones that bear the burden of HIV positive children, nurse their husbands, and most times look after orphans. I personally checked a local clinic to see how many men take their children in for their routine tests, and among thirty women, only one man had taken his son to the clinic. . . .