By Chioma Obinna
Despite the fact that human rights institutions, groups and donor agencies fight domestic violence, violence against women and girls living with HIV/AIDS has continued unabated.
Some of the affected women shared their stories with Good Health Weekly, during a Dialogue on Violence Against Women and Girls Living with HIV in Lagos. The programme was organised by Positive Action for Treatment Access, PATA, in collaboration with Women Advocate Research and Documentation Center, WARDC. Excerpts:
IN most climes, marriage is for better for worse. But how practical is this in reality? This is the pertinent question many women such as Deborah and Janet who are living with HIV are begging for an answer.
“My life has experienced enough violence even before I was diagnosed HIV positive but my new status escalated the already ugly situation,” Deborah said amidst tears.
Although, Deborah’s first marriage was characterised by violence, the discovery of her HIV status worsened the situation and ultimately cause her marriage to hit the rocks.
“There was so much intimidation and at the end of the day we just had to go our separate ways.”
Like the typical Nigerian woman that would not want her marriage to break, initially, Deborah was not ready to leave her matrimonial home.
She wasn’t willing to separate for fear of discrimination and stigmatisation particularly from society, family and religious groups who most times are judgemental.
“I am so happy that I left t and now I can confidently speak out. If you don’t take up that challenge, you cannot achieve anything in life, you will die of stigma and discrimination. I’m happy that I left the marriage and became an advocate for the rights of women living with HIV in Lagos state,” she said, adding that she later got married to another man who though negative is very supportive.
Today, Deborah who is so passionate about living positively with HIV is now an advocate for HIV/AIDS in Lagos State. Through her horrible experiences, she is now advocating for other women facing same similar challenges.
Deborah is not alone, Janet, who also suffered separation in marriage due to her status, has been living with HIV for 11 years.
Fondly call ‘old virus’ by her fellow advocates, Janet said her marriage wasn’t violent but the separation was as a result of HIV status.
She narrated the story of another woman living with HIVwho could not boldly tell her story. The woman granted her permission through a written note.
She remarked that stories abound about several women living with HIV who are facing unprintable situations, with challenges rangeing from discrimination, stigmatisation and separation and most cases divorce threats from their husbands and families.
Janet also narrated another story of Omolola, who is currently going through emotional torture due to her HIV status. The story of the woman who granted written permission moved people to taers.
Her husband turned her to an ATM machine.
“This lady walked up to me at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, in LASUTH crying. She narrated how she disclosed her HIV positive status to her husband before marriage and the man accepted even though he is negative. After their wedding, he began to blackmail her
“The man reminds her that she must be giving him money otherwise he would tell the whole world about her status and how he is risking his life to be with her.
“It got to a stage that the lady didn’t have anything to give again and she started borrowing. She told me she is in debt to the tune of over N200, 000. When she could not borrow money again, the man began beating her. He beat her to the point that she was twice hospitalise. She spent seven days in the hospital.
“I confirmed that because I spoke to the doctors that attended to her. Yet in each of those hospital visits, she still begged the man to come back to home because she had nowhere to go tas she had lost both parents.
“Finally the woman had to leave the marriage and moved down to Agbara because the man started began telling everybody on the street the reason he left her, saying that he didn’t know she was HIV positive before he married her.
“The lady is a hairdresser, so the man started telling all her clients about her status and she lost her job and couldn’t walk on the street, then she had to move down to Agbara. Till yesterday, people are still calling her, to ask about her status.”
Sadly, as these women living with HIV battle to save their marriages, Director, Women Advocate Research and Documentation Center, WARDC, Dr Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi, said although, violence against women is so much, but it is more severe with people living with disability and HIV/AIDS.
According to Akiyode-Afolabi: “People living with disability and HIV/AIDS suffer more violence because they are much more vulnerable than any other women because of their circumstances and situation. “This is because people think that they depend on them, and that they don’t have any other option so they see them from the point of sympathy and that make them much more vulnerable to violence,” she said.
Akiyode-Afolabi, who offered solutions to stem the tide said: “It is important for us to activate the policies that are on ground. In Lagos state, there is a domestic violence provision law. We need to activate that law. Activating that law also requires that people must understand what the law provides, understand what and where they can get help, know which group provides services- whether counseling and legal services.”
Further, Akiyode-Afolabi said people must understand that violence against women is a public health concern; it has health implication and cost implication. It’s a thing that requires government to also put in budget. So that is why it is not only women issues, it’s everybody’s issue.
“The government, institutions, women themselves and men must be involved in addressing the issue of violence against women. It is killing the society gradually, its making women run mad in the street, its turning beautiful women to ugly women in the society because once you poor acid on them their life change forever, there is nothing you can do, no amount of plastic surgery can bring her back to her normal face,” she said.
The Lagos State Commissioner for Information, Hon. Kehinde Bamisetan, said the Lagos State AIDS Control Agency, LSACA, is supporting in terms of treatment and reducing the stigma.
“We continuously advocate and make people aware that we need to accommodate people living with HIV/AIDS, not to stigmatize them in our community.”
On employment, he said many people living with disability have also been employed over time and was optimistic that HIV/AIDS community can be part of that process of gaining employment.
In an address, Board member, PATA, Mrs. Iwalola Akin-Jimoh explained that the objective of the dialogue was to increase public understanding of the scope and nature of violence been perpetuated against women and girls living with HIV in Lagos state.
Akin-Jimoh said it was also organized to simplified version of the protection against domestic violence law 2007 as well as galvanized public actions to prevent all forms of violence against women and girls living with HIV in Lagos state.
She further noted that women and girls constitute one of the most vulnerable groups to HIV/AIDS particularly in a country like Nigeria where gender inequality have been identified as the driver.
Akin-Jimoh explained that “Now the issue is that if the prevalence among young women between the ages of 15 and 24 is estimated to be three times higher than among men of the same age according to the National AIDS Control Agency, NACA, and violence against women and girls manifest in various forms: some women are tested and their results are disclosed to their partner without their consent whereas when men are tested their partners are not informed. Again some women are placed on drugs without finding whether they are positive or not.
How can we enforce the existing laws in Lagos state, how can we engage women and girls living with HIV as champions and advocates in addressing issues of violence? How do we increase funding which is critical to support the intervention programmes targeted at addressing cases of violence against these people , “she noted.