HIV positive women speak out at AIDS conference

“I refuse to be identical to a statistic. I feel, I get sexy, I get hungry. Whatever you feel about your sexuality, I also feel,” declared Brigitte Syamalevure, mother of 11 and an HIV positive Zambian.

Syamalevure, who is part of the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS (ICW), says that society simply expects that HIV positive women must simply stop having sex and that an ICW member had even been sterilised without her consent.

Addressing a gathering at the international AIDS conference, Syamalevere said that in the absence of drugs the only “therapy” she and other Africans in the ICW network had is the support of one another.  

Yet this has made her strong, said Syamalevure, as in the past she “did not   have the power to talk about sex in the bedroom”.

Explaining how she made a pounded peanut mixture for her 11th child to drink to prevent her from becoming HIV positive from breastmilk, Syamalevure condemned the World Health Organisation for saying that HIV positive Africans should breastfeed their babies as “they are going to die anyway”.  

“Our babies do not have to die even if we do not have powdered milk. That is tantamount to promoting genocide.”  

Zimbabwean Chipo Mbanje, who heads her country’s organisation for women with HIV, challenged scientists at the international AIDS conference to make their research available in “a simple form”.  

“When I first tested HIV positive 10 years ago, I literally waited for death. But at this conference we are hearing about Nevirapine, [research that exclusive] breastfeeding might be safe. We need communities to know this,” said Mbanje.

Ugandan Beatrice Were said that a painful part of the conference was the call for drugs to prevent mothers from infecting their babies, yet the mothers were not in line for any treatment.  

“In African we have no social services, so the security of children lies with their mothers. We have to talk about safe babies and healthy mothers,” said Were.

Lissette Mendoza, from Santa Domingo in the Caribbean, described her government’s failure to give drugs to HIV positive people – even those aimed at preventing opportunistic infections – as “institutional violence”.  

“I lost my baby four years ago. My little boy had a lot of pain. He died of   meningitis, and we had no access to any medication. Women come and tell me that their children are sick. But we have nothing for our children.”

Were lamented the fact that “women are always blamed for spreading HIV. If a child is HIV positive, the mother not the father is blamed.”  

She added that the conference had failed to strongly condemn war and conflict in Africa as a major factor fuelling the epidemic as “girls and women are vulnerable to rape”.


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