By Michelle Hough, communications officer
Thabang Society, Parys, South Africa
Sarah* has the face of a young girl, but at the age of 29 she has already been raped, has lost her husband to suicide and has lived through the deaths of her three young children to AIDS-related diseases. She herself also has HIV.
None of her children survived beyond the age of five. One died at just three months old. Two of her children died on her back as she took them to hospital.
After her first child died, Sarah didn’t want any more children, but her husband was abusive and left her with no choice but to get pregnant again, even though there was a risk the children would have HIV.
“Sometimes I just sleep because I feel so hungry that I don’t know what else to do,” says Sarah when I meet her at the Thabang Society therapy and counselling centre, two hours away from Johannesburg.
Caritas provides the centre with antiretrovirals (ARVs) to treat people with HIV. Sarah has been on ARVs since March. Even though good nutrition is essential for people on ARVs, Sarah often doesn’t have anything to eat in the house. Most days she just eats a bowl of porridge in the morning.
Budgetary problems in the local health service means that ARVs aren’t easily accessible in Free State, where the Thabang Society is located, so most people have to depend on the Church or other organisations.
Sarah’s story shocks me. How can one woman face so much and still carry on? She looks so afraid and fragile. She is essentially alone. I’m told she has been ostracised by her family. I don’t know if it is because of the rape or because of her HIV status.
Many of the women I have met during my trip to southern Africa have been disempowered because of their HIV status, poverty, lack of food and lack of education. Many are also mourning the deaths of their children from HIV and TB, and struggling with guilt and stigma. The children that survive often inherit not only their mothers’ illness, but also their poverty, hunger and lack of education.
While I’m at the Thabang Society, I also meet 11-month-old Joyce. She has terrible oral thrush which makes it difficult to eat and she’s so tiny from hunger that she could be three months old. She’s starting on ARVs for the first time this very evening.
*Name changed to protect identity.
“I’m going to be my own doctor.”
Rosemary Queque, 39, is a counsellor at Thabang. She is fiercely bright and originally studied marketing. She has been living with HIV 13 years.
“When I was diagnosed, the message was, if you have AIDS you’re going to die,” says Rosemary. “So I waited for the whole of 1997 to die.”
After a long depression Rosemary decided to dig deeper and learn about HIV, and things began to change.
“I started to get more information, and I told myself ‘I’m going to be my own doctor’,” she says.
Rosemary now works as a counsellor and tries to instill a sense of hope in people with HIV. She openly discusses her status and tours schools to teach children about HIV. Thirteen years after she was diagnosed, she says she still hasn’t had to take ARVs.
She says it was difficult disclosing her status to her son, who is now grown-up and doesn’t have HIV, but she got advice on how to do it.
In the evening, back at the guest house in Pretoria where I’m staying, I think about what Rosemary has told me. The big difference between her and the many other women I have interviewed seems to be education. Education has helped her get work and money to eat. It gives her the confidence to not depend on men. It has also helped her to put her status into perspective so she doesn’t feel as though she’s facing a death sentence.
However, for most of the women and children I’ve met, education is a distant dream. Their priority and the big battle every day of their lives is getting enough food and water to live.
It has been a long and intense week, so I turn on the TV to take my mind off AIDS issues and the desperate stories I’ve heard.
Oprah Winfrey is interviewing a famous woman about the stomach surgery she’s had to lose weight. The woman had been very fat. She and Oprah go on and on about how terrible it is to be fat and how there’s so much stigma surrounding it.
Oh, shut up Oprah, I think as I switch the TV off again.