What is it with women and girls? Why are we always left behind? Why can't we choose the things we want to be a part of? Why must we always race to the front, rather than be left peacefully alone when we would rather not partake? Is it because, as women, we are strong, powerful, and the foundation of our society?
When we started hearing about HIV in Motherland Nigeria, it was about men dying at the mines or long-distance truck drivers going home to die. But before you could form the words to thank God that women weren't acquiring the nasty virus, common sense reminded you that whatever a man acquires -- good or bad -- will surely come home.
About a decade ago, when I came onto the AIDS scene as a young woman who was left behind and uncertain as to whether I wanted to be a part of this, most of those who were involved and at the forefront were men. The boys were everywhere -- fighting like crazy, giving Big Pharma (the pharmaceutical lobby) a hard time in order to ensure access to life-saving antiretroviral drugs, raising their voices to bring about change, and claiming a space for people living with HIV. The few women I saw on the global scene were Amazons, and I wondered, where did this breed emanate from? They dared to tread where angels trembled; they were forceful and powerful; they, too, laid claim to that space for people living with HIV.
Today, women are everywhere. Their duty shifts have doubled from caring for sick husbands, lovers, fathers, children, friends, sisters, and grandchildren to taking the fight to the streets, to parliaments, and on stage. With access to life-saving medication, we stopped dying and found a new spirit and passion for living, allowing our forebears to take a rest and hand over the baton. Together, we women and girls marched on like tireless soldiers as we became the men of our households, bearing the physical, financial, and emotional burdens in our now women-headed homes.
As mothers, grandmothers, daughters, and sisters in the AIDS movement, we started educating the people, formed community centres and support groups, asking for nothing, but getting more than we had bargained for. The burden of this epidemic was placed firmly on our backs as we worked -- and in many cases still do -- as unpaid volunteers in clinics and home-based uncompensated care providers, travelling the world as exotic exhibits and voices in the show titled "The feminization of HIV." We sang and danced before visiting presidents and dim-witted denialists, and in front of courtrooms when our access to drugs was threatened. Those of us with HIV took our pills and our frail backs got stronger, while our beautiful bodies changed shape and form. The life-saving pills stole our beautiful femenine figures. We watched our faces, legs, and arms thin out, while our stomachs and backs grew bigger. But it didn't matter; we were alive, and the lack of our wonderful figures was better than being buried six feet below in a wooden box. Well, that was then, and this is now.
The catch phrase is "getting to zero:" zero new infections, zero AIDS-related deaths, and zero discrimination -- an admirable, yet challenging vision. The bile-tasting words "mother-to-child" leave a sour taste in my mouth; they are words intent on weakening our strengthened backs. I am glad to see UNAIDS move away from the toxic mother-to-child transmission, but many other organizations and agencies have chosen to continue blaming us for infecting our babies. I insist on using the phrase "parent-to-child transmission," because it takes two parents to ensure that all four prongs of Preventing Mother-to-Child Transmission (PMTCT) are effective:
Prong 1 | There will be no HIV in women and girls of reproductive age if our partners paid some attention to us.
Prong 2 | We most certainly can stop unintended pregnancies in women living with HIV if men are given a role to play.
Prong 3 | The intervention of PMTCT is in dire need of support from both parents, who must accept joint responsibility. Why are entire programmes still named and, once again, balanced on the backs of women? Using the phrase "Mother-to-Child Transmission" implies the mother is to blame for HIV in an innocent child. It's of little wonder that mothers feel guilty, responsible, and unable to forgive themselves when their babies test HIV-positive.
Prong 4 | Support for mothers, babies, and families obviously needs the help and empowerment of both parents.
As the world of AIDS advocacy races on to ensure zero new infections, priorities change while our epidemic lives on, so we must send an invitation to memory and a challenge to amnesia. We have to remember the countless women who cannot negotiate safe sex or protect themselves from the sexual transmission of HIV, as well as from other sexually transmitted diseases. We should scream in outrage as raping women and girls becomes an acceptable weapon of warfare, and remind ourselves of the physical and sexual violence that far too many of our sisters endure because they dared to say no. We should remember the women who are locked up and denied their rights, simply because they are sex workers who dared to make their bodies their business. We should ensure that our comrades who are rehabilitated and denied clean needles or substitution therapy be given space on the bus, as we race to zero.
In a world of changing priorities, can we spare some change for female-initiated preventive technologies, such as microbicides and female condoms, to support HIV-positive women and not just to protect women who are HIV-negative? Can we dare take a look at those national laws and policies which make women second-class citizens? Is it conceivable -- and that is no accidental pun -- that women's rights can include sexual, reproductive, inheritance, and property rights?
Recently, the heads of UNAIDS, UN Women, and the United Nations Population Fund collectively stated that the sexual and reproductive rights of women living with HIV is non-negotiable. So it is; it will and has to be -- because it is not only what we deserve, but what we demand:
- We demand laws that protect us from violence, abuse, and discrimination.
- We deserve to have our hard labour adequately compensated.
- We demand to have a say and a vote at the table when decisions affecting our lives are made.
- We need increased funding to support initiatives led by women living with HIV.
- We need programmes that empower us to take charge of our lives and health, not just help others meet their project goals.
- We demand access to formal education and training programmes so we can earn degrees and certificates and move from being unpaid volunteers to salaried workers.
- We demand laws protecting our right to inherit property and own land.
- We deserve financial support and demand to keep our children when our marriages or partnerships fall apart.
- We believe it is our right to choose when, how, and with whom to birth or not.
- We demand that programmes for young people be designed to meet the needs of our adolescent daughters and young women with HIV.
I end with a special tribute to my wonderfully brave sisters: Temitayo Oyedemi, Yinka Jegede, Vuyiseka Dubula, Beatrice Were, Alice Welbourn, Kate Thomson, Shaun Mellors and Gregg Gonsalves.