Married at 12 years old, Gilda*, now 34, had all the odds stacked against her. A rural woman, she survived physical and sexual violence at the hands of two husbands and had seven children. After she contracted HIV from her second husband, he expelled her from their home, leaving her destitute and sick.
Gilda regained her confidence with support from Fórum Mulher, a civil society organization working under the European Union-funded Spotlight Initiative as part of a "Consortium Against Sexual Violence". Gilda started her antiretroviral treatment, learnt new skills and found a new purpose - helping other vulnerable women living with HIV in her home province of Nampula, Northern Mozambique.
"I do not want any woman to suffer as I did," says Gilda.
GENDER BASED VIOLENCE AND HIV
According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), 2.2 million Mozambicans live with HIV, the second highest number of people living with HIV in the world. Women are disproportionately affected by HIV, representing 60 per cent of all adults living with the virus, with a prevalence rate of 9.8 per cent among women between 15 to 24 years of age.
"Each hour, four young and adolescent women contract HIV in Mozambique" - said Winnie Byanyima, Under Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UNAIDS in a recent visit to the country.
A World Health Organization 2013 study shows that women who have experienced intimate partner violence are 1.5 times more likely to acquire HIV, when compared to women who have not experienced partner violence. Women often face challenges negotiating safer sex. This is exacerbated when they depend economically on their partners or when sex is violent or forced.
When married as children, girls often drop out of school, losing access to information on HIV prevention, initiating sexual activity prematurely and becoming dependent on a spouse.
The confluence of child marriage, intimate partner violence, poverty and HIV infection certainly exposed Gilda to these multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination - leaving her in a situation of extreme vulnerability.
OVERCOMING MULTIPLE FORMS OF DISCRIMINATION
Gilda was first approached by Fórum Mulher in 2019, as part of a group of vulnerable women living in Mogovolas district, Nampula province. She had been sick for a long time but was reluctant to seek treatment for HIV due to fear of stigma.
However, Fórum Mulher activists persevered and gently persuaded her to start treatment. After some time, she accepted to start the antiretroviral treatment and, as she felt progressively better, Gilda found a new drive: to help other women overcome similar situations.
She took part in a training for "matronas" (traditional, female birth attendants who also perform initiation rites) promoted by Fórum Mulher with funding from the Spotlight Initiative. The training equipped her with knowledge and skills to prevent and respond to cases of gender-based violence, and Gilda became a volunteer activist for the organization.
"I am not ashamed to say I am HIV positive. I am a warrior. I have won a battle and I will fight for the wellbeing of all women in my district." - says Gilda.
As an activist, Gilda teaches vulnerable women about gender-based violence prevention and keeps regular contact with them. She often tells her story to inspire other women living with HIV to seek treatment, and helps them access health services.
LEAVING NO ONE BEHIND
Women and girls who are exposed to multiple forms of discrimination - such as those living with HIV/AIDS, gender-based violence, poverty, trafficking, disabilities, albinism or those in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Intersex (LGBTI) community - often need extra protection and support.
Spotlight Initiative civil society partners have deployed a range of outreach initiatives to foster knowledge about and access to support services, reaching over 700 vulnerable women and girls living with HIV.
Important legal instruments and policies were revised by the Government of Mozambique with support from the Spotlight Initiative to strengthen the protection of these groups. These include an HIV and AIDS strategy in Public Administration, as well as in depth evaluations of the legal environment surrounding HIV/AIDS, among others. To make essential services more available and easier to access, the programme is also supporting the Government to train their staff, improve and expand existing service points and counselling services, having enabled over 400,000 people just like Gilda, to access the help they need.
*Name was changed
In Mozambique, Spotlight Initiative partners with organizations such as Fórum Mulher, a member of a "Consortium Against Sexual Violence" (Consórcio Contra a Violência Sexual) comprising seven organizations that work to prevent sexual and gender-based violence.
Adapted by Leonor Costa Neves from a story by Consórcio Contra a Violência Sexual