NKOLE NKOLE, Lusaka
IN ORDER to fight actively and collaboratively to end AIDS, a group of Zambian women met for a round-table dialogue hosted by UNAIDS to discuss the role of women as social influencers in the fight against HIV.
The event was co-hosted by UNAIDS Zambia goodwill Ambassador, Luyando Wood, in collaboration with young Zambian fashion designers who used their creations of red ribbon-themed dresses to raise awareness on HIV.
The fashion show was meant to demonstrate how communicating about HIV can be done through various channels, including, but not limited to, fashion.
Fifty women took part in the conversation and offered solutions to the challenges that remain as Zambia pushes to end AIDS by 2030, in line with the global Fast-Track strategy.
The 50 women shared ideas drawn from their varied experiences as representatives of different sectors.
UNAIDS Zambia country director, Medhin Tsehaiu, who took part in the discussion, said while 2030 is the global Fast-Track target to end AIDS, Zambia and the rest of the world should not wait until 2030.
“We really need to do more so that we stop the number of new infections,” Dr Tsehaiu said.
There have been 46,000 new cases of HIV since 2010 which UNAIDS says shows a strong decline, but is still very high.
There are presently 1.2 million people living with HIV in Zambia with about 900,000 receiving treatment.
Much progress has been made globally to end AIDS and Zambia, too, has made commendable strides, but moving forward there is the realisation that there are small populations such as the prison population that have been left behind.
There is also the recognition that beyond providing drugs for HIV, there are many other issues that need to be addressed such as stigma, gender-based violence (GBV) and discrimination.
Additionally, UNAIDS notes that girls and women are overwhelmingly more affected by HIV in Zambia.
About 80,000 girls, representing 29 percent of the population, have started childbearing and dropped out of school.
According to UNAIDS, nearly 30 percent of married adolescent girls experience sexual violence from their intimate partners and women who have experienced violence are up to three times more likely to be infected with HIV than those who have not.
UN development specialist Yemi Falayajo told the round table participants that girls need to be given options so as not to become susceptible to contracting HIV when in helpless circumstances.
“When a young girl in the village is forced into an early marriage, it predisposes her to many things including HIV because she does not know where her older husband is coming from,” Ms Falayajo explained.
Early marriages, she said, disempower girls and prevent them from staying in school. On the other hand, if another girl in the village is encouraged to finish school, it opens up opportunities for her.
Ms Falayajo said a girl who completes school can make more informed choices about her future and not be forced into marriage.
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) national project coordinator, Sharon Nyambe, shared how the prison population in Zambia is a neglected one in the area of HIV prevention.
“We have done well globally and nationally because we are on the right track, but when we talk about prisons we have a lot of work to do,” Ms Nyambe said.
She insisted that forgotten populations pose a risk to the progress that has already been made in controlling the spread of HIV.
Because the people who end up in prison come from communities, how their health is treated while in prison is critical. Prisoners are said to be five times more likely to contract HIV while in prison.
According to Ms Nyambe, people vulnerable to HIV in communities are also vulnerable to criminality, and once they end up in prison, they run the risk of spreading the virus.
These include individuals such as sex workers, women who are victims of GBV, as well as drug users. They become vulnerable groups of people in the same space who can increase the HIV prevalence rate.
Another key discussion point during the event was the need to take HIV into spaces such as the church and engage religious organisations in the HIV fight.
The women emphasised that sensitisation in churches is necessary to get the right message about HIV across. They also heard how some churches in Zambia are misleading their members by discouraging them from taking their ARV medication which in some extreme cases has led to loss of life or worsened the symptoms of people living with HIV (PLHIV).
Lulu Wood said HIV counsellors need to be equipped in health centres and communities to provide meaningful counselling that gives hope to PLHIV and helps them to understand that having HIV does not signify death.
UNAIDS is also emphasising the power of antiretroviral medicines in ending AIDS by 2030.
The organisation explains that access to antiretroviral therapy has in some places reduced the stigma of HIV and lessened the discrimination people living with HIV face in many settings.
HIV treatment is further said to have helped normalise HIV and enabled people to live positively.
Recent research has also shown that the provision of antiretroviral therapy would avert much of the maternal mortality that occurs in the countries with a heavy HIV burden.
Furthermore, people who are living with HIV and achieve viral suppression have a lower risk of transmitting HIV to their uninfected sexual partner, and as antiretroviral therapy increases the survival of adults, fewer children are becoming orphans.