Zimbabwe: Young HIV Positive Women's Woes Deepen As Zimbabwe Economy Slumps

As Zimbabwe's economy continues to decline, young women living with HIV are facing major challenges to health and well-being due to increasing poverty.

Tendai*, 20, a young woman living with HIV from Harare's eastern suburb of Mabvuku-Tafara, said she has struggled to find adequate food during her entire life. But eating regular nutritious food is vital for antiretroviral medication used to treat people living with HIV to be effective.

"Having lost both parents to AIDS-related illness before the age of seven, access to food was my biggest problem. I wanted to eat before taking my drugs but sometimes there was no food in the house," Tendai said.

Employment challenges

Upon finishing her secondary education, Tendai looked for a job as a maid but she did not disclose her status to her employer creating problems that nearly cost her life.

"I stopped taking my drugs because I wasn't prepared to tell my employer that I was HIV positive. I ended up falling very sick from stomach pains and severe diarrhoea," she said.

Tendai's situation isn't unique. Chenai*, 19, another young woman living with HIV from Harare's suburb of Mbare, said her family has been destitute since her father fell ill in 2013.

"We were staying in one room in Chitungwiza but later moved to Mbare where we are staying with a well-wisher. Our property was taken by the owner of the house because we had failed to pay the rent," Chenai said.

Due to the illness, the family has not succeeded in raising money for school fees so that Chenai can complete her secondary education. This leaves Chenai in a desperate position.

"If I don't go to school, my future is doomed. There aren't any job opportunities for anyone who hasn't completed secondary education. I can only become a maid, working for other families who may not accept my HIV positive status," she said.

Destitute families

For more than a decade, Zimbabwe has experienced rapid economic decline resulting in job losses and making many families destitute. Families of people living with HIV are among the hardest hit.

The economic woes of young people living with HIV are worsened by the stigma and discrimination they continue to face at home, in schools and other community settings.

Tatenda*, 22, a young woman living with HIV from the suburb of Waterfalls, said she was denied the right to education.

"People looked at me and saw someone who had no future simply because I was HIV positive. As a grown up, I have come to realise that education is important," she said.

When Tatenda was finally given an opportunity to go to school, it was not easy as she was continually stigmatised by other students. Such treatment by both family and friends has left her living in a shell.

"At school, I found it so difficult to have friends. Whenever I walked into a classroom or tried to join a group of students, they stood up and left me all by myself," she said.

"People call me names and make my life miserable just because I am HIV positive. When I get friends, they ask me questions about that thing in my blood. Life has just been hard."

Dealing with stigma

Emmanuel Gasa, director of The AIDS and Arts Foundation (TAAF), said civil society is trying its best to complement government efforts to address the challenges faced by young women and girls living with HIV.

"We have organised them into groups meant to support their capacity to start income generation projects. Some young people from where we operate such as Mabvuku-Tafara have travelled to regional countries to buy products for sale in the local market," Gasa said.

On HIV-related stigma, Gasa said TAAF has supported the development of memory books so that when young people face stigmatising attitudes, they can go through these books and reflect on some of the happiest moments of their lives.

"That way they will be able to deal with issues of stigma. You don't always expect people to be nice to you. Not all the nurses or doctors will be able to assist you but that shouldn't destroy your spirit," Gasa added.

The 'memory book' project was initially developed to encourage people living with HIV to record information, thoughts and messages for their children to read after death. As HIV has become a chronic manageable condition, the initiative is now widely used to help people living with HIV to record information about their every day experiences for future reflection.

Zimbabwe is among countries in the region with a high HIV prevalence rate at around 15 per cent. Most of the young people living with HIV in the country became infected through mother-to-child transmission.

*Names changed.

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