Women breaking the stereotype
A series of articles by guest writers for World AIDS Day
Part of AVERT's World AIDS Day 2012 campaign, ‘Reflections on the Epidemic’ are a series of articles by guest writers.
Our guest writers range from global leaders, writers, experts, activists, physicians and people personally affected by HIV and AIDS; and they represent various countries, experiences and backgrounds from all over the world.
We are grateful to all our guest writers for their effort and the diverse and insightful viewpoints that they contributed to the world’s response to HIV and AIDS.
You can also see all articles and writers in this series at the end of every article.
Young African woman. Face of AIDS. Most at risk. Hardest-hit. When I first started reporting on HIV/AIDS eleven years ago, these phrases were not just meaningless clichés I would use in my articles. I was a 22-year-old South African girl living in the eye of the storm - I was more susceptible to HIV infection than anyone else in the newsroom. But the one-dimensional and pitiful stories about women and girls that were trotted out in the media at the time made little sense to me. The women I met and interviewed had strong stories to tell, despite being faced with inequality in the bedroom, at home, at school and everywhere else. I can't romanticise the levels of violence and abuse that many women experienced - South Africa has one of the highest rates of rape and sexual abuse in the world. But the reality was that we as journalists had neglected to give the whole picture - the one where women also had a sense of agency. And desire. They were not just passive recipients of HIV.
“journalists had neglected to give the whole picture - the one where women also had a sense of agency”
The biggest turning point for me came when I travelled to the province of KwaZulu-Natal a few months after the US-based reproductive health research organisation, CONRAD, announced the premature end of trials of a cellulose sulphate-based microbicide after the data safety and monitoring committee found a higher number of infections in the active group compared to the placebo group. This was a huge and unexpected disappointment, as preclinical testing of the microbicide had given no indication of a potential for harm, had caused minimal side effects when used in the vagina, and appeared acceptable to women. CONRAD was conducting the trial in Benin (West Africa), India, South Africa and Uganda. In South Africa, media reports suggested that trial participants had been used as "human guinea pigs", and that researchers had encouraged them to seek out sexual partners at local taverns and have unprotected sex. But I sat down with about 10 trial participants and I found a lot of angry women. They were angry and felt misrepresented, these were not guinea pigs - they may have been poor and uneducated but they were also street smart and savvy women who told me about how much better sex was with the gel, and how the regular pap smears and health check-ups were what they would miss now that the trial had stopped.
I have many more stories of women I have met that broke the stereotype of the poor African woman as a victim, and I will keep telling them. I'm fortunate that my boss, the founder of PlusNews - Obinna Anyadike - is a feminist and a bit of a maverick, we have the same vision. Very little has changed. Granted - we've made progress with treatment, funding and the science of it all. But women are still more likely to get infected with HIV, and our choices are limited - in sub-Saharan Africa most of us will have only one family planning method available to choose from, female condoms are still not widely available, and we still have to deal with many structural inequalities that force us into transactional sex, violent relationships and bad choices. I've made a few of those bad choices myself - and this is why I keep telling this story. Educated, well-paid job, assertive in the workplace, but at the end of the day, I am also vulnerable and just as affected as many of the women I write about
Kanya Ndaki is Editor of IRIN’s HIV/AIDS news service PlusNews. As a journalist she specializes in health, with a particular focus on HIV/AIDS.
For further information on microbicides, see AVERT's page.
Images: 'A local community group learning about HIV treatment, South Africa', copyright: AVERT. 'Writing', copyright: KimNowacki
Meeting the challenge of stigma in Iran
Words are not enough: Where is the genuine support for an AIDS-free generation?
Going beyond the silver bullet approach
A new generation of awareness
Mothers at the forefront of change
A few simple actions against AIDS
The reality of beginning the end of AIDS
In the balance — HIV and the Law
Striving for an AIDS free generation of adolescents
A broken unity: An American reflection on the epidemic
Universal access for people who use drugs: Not just a pipe dream
In pursuit of a cure
The future of antiretroviral treatment
Ending paediatric AIDS
A future of possibilities
Riding the waves of HIV
The Paediatric HIV response in the context of AIDS optimism
HIV/AIDS Care begins at home
HIV/AIDS in Uganda: Myth to reality
Why beauty is a great weapon in the fight against HIV/AIDS
HIV Walk, unravels the epidemic
The importance of Parliamentary voices in the AIDS response
Women breaking the stereotype
Resources for a rights based approach to address the HIV/AIDS pandemic
AIDS - It’s not over
Backing the community response
Gogo-getters become elders
Getting to zero
The search for common humanity at the heart of the AIDS response
AIDS is still hot in India
Why involve women with HIV?
All opinions expressed in 'Reflections on the Epidemic' do not necessarily represent those of AVERT.