By Deb Norris
International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate and honour the accomplishments of women all over the world. We also remember the struggles that women live with every day and, hopefully, we consider how we can change the world so women and girls can live better lives. International Women’s Day gives me an opportunity to reflect on how far we’ve come and how much further we have to go to create a world where women and girls are afforded the rights we should all have.
I am a woman living with HIV. In spite of growing up in poverty and abuse, I lived in Alberta, Canada, one of the richest provinces, in one of the richest countries in the world. That meant that I could leave home at 16, put myself through high school and then university, thanks to a social safety net. It allowed me to rise above. It allowed me to travel to a developing country in Africa where I taught children, many of whom were young women, and, hopefully, helped them rise above their circumstances.
I am now living on an island in Honduras, which is one of the most violent countries in the world. According to UNAIDS the prevalence rate among women in rural communities almost quadruples the prevalence among men. I teach at a school where the majority of the children have mothers who are living with HIV and facilitate a support group for the mothers and other women on the island living with HIV. Here are some of their stories.
A. is a grandmother at the age of 34. She has been living with HIV for many years and has gone to communities all over the island and told her story, in hopes that other women will hear it, recognise themselves and make different choices. She hopes they will choose to leave abusive relationships and insist that partners use condoms to protect themselves. She had two children who died and was tested for HIV after her fourth child was born. She then knew the other two had died of AIDS. She came to the clinic when her daughter was only hours old asking for support because the clinic provides formula so the women do not breast feed (a major route of HIV infection here). As a result, her daughter is negative. She is one of the few women in our group who chose to throw out her abusive husband. When her ex-husband died, she told her daughter, whom he also abused, it was ok to hate and love him. She supports her daughter to go to work every day by looking after her grandson. She wants a better life for her.
J. is a woman living with HIV whose husband knew he had the disease but refused for a very long time to tell her. When he finally disclosed his HIV to them and the family was tested, J., her daughter and her son tested positive for HIV and she left him. He died of AIDS and then a second husband died of AIDS. She lives day to day, in survival mode, yet doesn’t believe she or her children will survive. After anti-retrovirals were made available by the government of Honduras for free, she and her children began treatment. Unfortunately, like many women living with HIV, she does not take the medications consistently, nor does she give the medication to her children, so they often go months without treatment. As a result, they have missed a lot of school due to illness and are behind their peers in class by at least two grade levels; the girl is the furthest behind. I believe J. has given up on hope but I will not give up on her or her children.
Lastly, there is D., the daughter of a woman living with HIV. D’s mother supports her family through theft and prostitution. D. has grown up in a home where there is horrific abuse and was once hospitalized for weeks because her mother beat her so badly. She steals to feed her four brothers. She was thrown out of school last year for stealing and will probably follow her mother into the sex trade if she is thrown out again. And yet, she is a bright and happy child who is thriving at school. She still has her moments of darkness, but most of the time she works hard and is the brightest student in my class. If she sticks with it, she will go onto university one day. She will rise above.
These are just a few of the stories of the women and girls I’m surrounded by. They are stories of heartache, sadness and, yet, there is so much hope for the future in some of them. Hope that one day their world will be different. Hope that one day their children’s lives will be different. Hope that one day women and girls will rise above.