Friday, November 30, 2012

Positive SHEroes: Strong Women Working Towards an AIDS-free Generation

I know my blog is dedicated to fashion and beauty but there is so much more to our daily lives than looking stylish. I’m Afayah, by the way, and I think I’m special because I’m creative – I paint, I dance, I write, among other things. But guess what? You’re special too. And, even though we try to differentiate ourselves from one another by the things we’re interested in or the clothes we wear, we’re very much the same. We are all human beings and as a result of that we affect each other a lot more than we realise. So, with that said, are you aware of anyone around you (working with you, living with you) who is affected by HIV/AIDS? I’ll be honest and say, “I don’t know.” Many of us – myself included – go about our daily lives unaware of the facts as it relates to HIV/AIDS in Jamaica and the rest of the world. Since my readership is majority female I thought I could raise some awareness about the disease as it relates to women.

There were 373 reported AIDS cases in Jamaica in June 2008, 173 of which were women. As you may have already guessed, the number is far greater than that but many people aren't aware of their status, while some persons just haven’t reported it. So let’s work with what is reported for now. As insignificant as the figure seems to be, there is a high chance that most of the women affected by HIV/AIDS are stigmatised by society. When I was growing up I would hear the most ridiculous stories about persons living with the disease. “I would never drink from the same cup as someone with AIDS. I don’t want to catch it!” These were things that I heard from other children as a child; and clearly they learned it from uninformed adults. Nowadays, through public education people have a better understanding of HIV/AIDS but that has not changed how people living with the disease are treated.

In December 2011 (only one year ago) the Jamaica Gleaner published an article focusing on three women undergoing rampant discrimination in their community. It is heart-wrenching to know that even now people are still ignorant about HIV/AIDS and how it is transmitted. These women and their children have been subjected to humiliation and ridicule by their family members, friends and neighbours. They have received death threats; they have been fired from their jobs; they have been called names such as “Aidsie” by passersby; they have been scorned by their families; and, as a result, they have had to ban together to take care of one another. Their daily lives have been nothing short of stressful and fearful. This is just an example of the difficulty faced by some women with the disease.

Women have always been faced with sexual prejudice. Just a few months ago there was discussion in the Jamaican media related to gender-based stereotypes in school. Women’s rights activists showed concerns about the segregation of girls at the primary and secondary level and pleaded with the government to diversify the educational choices for girls. I studied Architecture, a male-dominated field even though when I was in high school I wasn't offered the option to do technical drawing. Traditionally there is a different expectation for girls but we have become so much more than housewives and secretaries. And, despite having a female Prime Minister, gender discrimination against women is still in effect.  So do the maths. There is an even greater difficulty faced by women living with HIV/AIDS. One thing is increasingly apparent – times are changing, awareness is being raised and women, in general, are becoming stronger forces in the change of society. One such person is Anti-AIDS discrimination spokeswoman, Joan Stephens.

Joan was diagnosed with HIV in January 2000 and has experienced significant stigmatisation to the point where she contemplated committing suicide. She contracted HIV from her husband during their three year marriage. Despite the struggle in her relationship and eventually losing her husband to AIDS, she has risen above that to make persons more aware and fight prejudice.  Joan Stephens continues to live her life to fullest with the support of her family. And, because of this she has been using herself as an example to other women with the HIV/AIDS to show them that they can also lead happy lives while infected. She also works hard to encourage safe sex which has prevented her from developing full blown AIDS. Aside from Joan’s efforts, more and more women living with HIV/AIDS have been coming forward to help the public come to a better understanding of what it means to have the disease. The reported cases have also decreased annually, which means that strides are being made to control the spread of HIV/AIDS in Jamaica.

World AIDS Day is on December 1. It is the beginning of the most festive month of the year. So while you are thinking about Christmas gifts and what you’re going to do for New Year’s Eve, consider this – do you know your status? If you don’t then I implore both men and women (but my female readers especially) to get tested. Time and time again women have proven to be stronger than they seem to be so take responsibility for your lives. Don’t allow anyone to take advantage of you, stand up for yourselves and practice safe sex. HIV/AIDS will always be a hot topic so join in! But ensure that you first educate yourself and then you can join women all over the world to raise awareness and give support.

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Peace, Love & Blaze,

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