Women’s resilient struggle against HIV in rural Zimbabwe

May 18, 2011

Women’s resilient struggle against HIV in rural Zimbabwe © Kenneth M Tong

In Easter, women are flocking in rural clinics to get injectable or oral contraceptives. Men come from South Africa to spend the holidays at home. Women know their husbands have sexual partners in the neighbouring country. They also know that injectable or oral contraceptives won’t protect them from HIV and sexually transmitted infections. But at least they prevent from unwanted pregnancies and save innocent lives from falling into the clutches of the deadly virus.

“I’m afraid of my husband. He knows I’m positive but he lives in denial. And he has threatened with killing me if I bring condoms home,” explains a woman to the counselor.

“I cannot bring my children for testing,” says apologetically another woman who has tested positive and has been counseled to do so. “I’m scared. If my children are positive too, that’s the end of my marriage.”

Tsholotsho is a rural district on the West of Zimbabwe, bordering with Botswana and near Victoria Falls, one of the world’s seven natural wonders. It is an agriculture-based society and there are no industries, apart from a small timber business. The area is prone to draughts so many people, especially young men, go to South Africa in search of jobs and better salaries.

Women stay behind, keeping the house, raising the children and suffering in silence. In this patriarchal society, the health of a woman is a family business. Women need to ask for the husband’s permission to go to the doctor. In his absence, it is the female in laws (mother or sisters) who take the decision. Sadly, women are the victims and the executioners of their own repressive fate.

The activities to raise awareness in the communities are somehow paying back although they make the submissiveness even more painful. When women believe their husbands are having risky behaviours, they go to a clinic to be tested. But then, it is not easy to disclose one’s positive status to the family, let alone to negotiate with the husband to have safe sex.

“The woman will be accused by the in-laws of bringing the disease into the family, as the husband is working in South Africa, and will be stigmatized,” explains a nurse in MSF’s Voluntary Counselling and Testing (VCT) centre in Tsholotsho. “Women don’t talk about sex with their husbands. It is common believe that men know more about sexual issues than women. If they do, men will consider their wives are having extra-marital affairs and that would be the end of the marriage. One needs a lot of courage to come out. Even financial and educational empowerment does not help to challenge the husband.”

Deadly denial

HIV is the major call for consultations in Tsholotsho District Hospital (TDH). According to MSF’s consultation records, the positivity rate of HIV tests done in the health facilities is close to 30%. Among pregnant women, the positivity rate of HIV tests done at ante-natal care consultations is around 23%, well above the national estimates (16%) for this population group. Perhaps because they are the ones actually taking care of the family and probably because they have the responsibility to bear and bring new lives into this world, women are more conscious of the risks of HIV and the benefits of an early diagnosis.

Most men, on the contrary, prefer to live in denial. What it is even worse, knowing their positive status and taking anti-retrovirals (ARVs) themselves in South Africa, they prefer to hide it from their spouses and family, and practice unsafe sex with their partners at risk of infecting them and the newborns. Men’s denial can go as far as being brought back very sick from South Africa and be dropped terminally ill at the hospital’s door. This is not an unfamiliar scene in TDH.

Nurses and counselors say people are now more aware about HIV because they have witnessed their relatives getting sick and dying, or getting treatment and having a productive life. A lot of awareness raising activities is being done among chief elders and religious leaders who have a powerful influence in the community’s social and cultural practices. “The change of behaviour is coming slowly,” concedes an MSF’s nurse in the Prevention of mother-to-child-transmission (PMTCT) programme in Tsholotsho. “It is not an easy road but there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

Lonely struggle

Rufaro, not her real name, is a 26-year-old mother of two babies. She delivered her second baby less than a year ago in the clinic of Luveve, in Bulawayo City. Apparently, both mother and baby were healthy and looked healthy. But soon after, she felt so sick that had to go to TDH. She was advised to take an HIV test and was shocked when she learnt she was positive. In the light of the outcome, she was advised to test her newborn, wrapped and clinging from her back. Again, she was horrified when the baby tested positive as well. But she felt so sick and confused that she barely understood what the doctor and nurses were telling her to do to help the baby.

Fortunately, her first baby tested negative. Rufaro is coming today to Bubude, a rural clinic in Tsholotsho District. She wants to have her blood taken for a CD4 counting as well as her baby’s dry blood spot taken for a DNA PCR testing (a technology used for HIV early infant diagnosis). The MSF’s nurse looks concerned. According to the baby’s health card, the test was carried out a few months ago but the mother has no idea where the official results can be. “I was so confused…”, apologizes Rufaro. Nevertheless, dry blood spot samples are taken from the baby. But he looks sick and the nurse advises the mother to take him to TDH as soon as possible for a consultation with the doctor.

Rufaro looks resigned. She is employed to take care of a house while the owner is working in South Africa but has no money to take the baby to the hospital until she is paid. That may only happen when the boss comes back. Perhaps in one week.

Mentor mothers

In Tsholotsho District, the Ministry of Health has just one doctor for a population of 129,000 people approximately, 48% less than 15-years old. Nurses are manning the seventeen rural clinics and the doctor, who happens to be the District Medical Officer as well, needs to balance his time to respond to all his responsibilities, including the consultations in the hospital.

Generally, outpatient consultations in clinics are overcrowded. Pregnant women who test positive and need to be enrolled in the PMTCT programme don’t have enough time to talk to healthcare staff to understand and cope with all the information that goes with it in a moment of total distress.

In an attempt to overcome this barrier, MSF has helped implementing a Mother to Mother programme in neighbouring Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city and less than two hours away from Tsholotsho. Based on volunteer work, positive women who have already gone through the PMTCT programme act as mentor mothers to provide peer support and first-hand experience to women newly enrolled in the programme. The result is so positive that MSF is planning to replicate the scheme in Tsholotsho.

“I learnt I was positive when I got pregnant. I didn’t want to accept it. I disclosed it immediately to my husband because I felt so angry. But he didn’t accept it either. Even worse, he didn’t understand the PMTCT programme. I was alone in the whole process and I went through denial for a long time before accepting my status. Concerning my husband, he lived in denial until he got very sick. He started late on ARVs and passed away a year ago,” recounts helpless Roselyne, not her real name, an HIV positive woman mother of a 7-year-old girl.

Roselyne and many others feel their support and experience is important. “Now mothers can accept their status more easily as they can see women who have gone through the same situation,” tells Roselyne. “When we visit mothers, we also ask for the husbands, so that we can talk to them. Men involvement in the PMTCT programme is important although at present less than 18% do. Men listen to women, but it would be more effective if men talk to them. They believe they can’t be told anything by women.”

A dreadful nightmare is haunting these women, though. “After successfully saving our babies from an HIV positive destiny, we fear they will be infected when they become adolescents. It is a scary thought,” adds Roselyne.

Aiming at facilitating universal access to HIV treatment and care, MSF is working in 13 out of the 17 rural clinics in Tsholotsho District as well as in TDH helping the MoH to decentralise the ARV treatment and the PMTCT programme. In addition to the hospital, there are already four rural clinics that offer ARV start-up and follow up consultations and two more clinics offering follow-up consultations (providing ARVs once treatment has been initiated in the hospital).The rest are only providing VCT yet. Early Infant Diagnosis (EID), available in the district since October 2009, was decentralized to all the 17 rural clinics in February 2011. Samples of dry blood spot are sent to Harare for DNA PCR. This system is relatively easy to use in rural areas. Still, children can only start ARV treatment in TDH but uncomplicated cases can be followed up in the six rural clinics that provide this service.

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