In Zimbabwe, as in many other countries in the region, women's vulnerability is often compounded by the stigma and discrimination they face once their HIV status is revealed. Women who admit to having HIV risk social exclusion and abandonment. Yet disclosure is a valuable tool in achieving acceptance and reducing stigma and discrimination.
When Floritah Chiradza, 40, found out that she was HIV positive, she began putting together a death wish list. She felt so depressed and isolated that her memory deteriorated and she couldn't remember anything.
"I went through a hard time because I couldn't accept my [HIV] status," she said. "I felt silent stigma, where people sideline you without openly telling you. I don't think people realize they are stigmatizing you. Maybe people think they are caring for you but in reality it's stigma at work."
Her husband abandoned her, leaving her with a six-month-old baby. He only returned to her after a year and a half when he was too sick to take care of himself. Chiradza graciously looked after him until he passed away.
According to UNAIDS, HIV-related stigma and discrimination is a "process of devaluation" of people either living with or associated with HIV. Actions that emerge from stigmatizing attitudes tend to be subtle, and efforts to combat it have been impeded by a lack of tools and tested interventions.
Women living with HIV often find themselves either receiving too much or unwelcome attention within the family and larger community. As a result they lose power, respect and identity through the taking away or diminishing, of their roles, responsibilities and social standing.
After she openly disclosed her status, Chiradza noticed that people around her began to express untoward sympathy towards her. At home, her mother couldn't come to terms with the fact that her daughter was HIV positive. So she preferred to tell relatives and friends that her daughter was suffering from something else. Chiradza's workmates began to isolate her by taking away some of her responsibilities at work.
"Stigma is something that I really went through. In most cases, people don't admit stigmatizing you, nor do they think they are discriminating against you, but some of the things they do show you that stigma and discrimination are real," said Chiradza.
Disclosure can cause an increase in stigma and discrimination, but it is also, paradoxically, an essential step in fighting stigma and discrimination. Before Chiradza disclosed her status, people accepted her even when she fell ill, but things drastically changed after her disclosure.
"I didn't get it easy with my family, particularly my mother. She just couldn't accept that I was HIV positive. She would not allow me to do any tasks, preferring to keep me redundant," said Chiradza.
But Chiradza did not give up. She began taking steps to seek information on how to live positively with HIV—a journey that took her to several support groups for people living with HIV. At her workplace, though she felt isolated, disclosure began the healing process for her.
"I found comfort in talking to people. I realized that I have to talk to people to pull through. So I started talking to my sisters, and my mother, though she could not take it. My mother is one person who made me stand bold and talk about my status because I was trying to convince her that she had to accept me as I was," she said
"Coming out and sharing with friends is the biggest healer. I must say that people who are living positively must be busy building bridges with various societies, rather than digging holes around themselves. Because if you take the digging holes attitude, honestly, you won't make it. But you have to reach out to people instead of waiting for people to come and help you," she said
Chiradza added that a good health care system that puts people first is an essential ingredient in the fight against stigma and discrimination, especially self-stigma. For Chiradza, having a caring physician who supported her with love and understanding was essential in helping her to cope with the disease.
"It's an ingredient that cannot be done without. My doctor was very encouraging. She helped me in the healing process by telling me to access alternative medication as well as to openly talk about my status," she said.
Chiradza said that people tend not to access information because they do not want to talk about the disease due to stigma and discrimination.
"If we can treat HIV and AIDS as any other condition, like diabetes or high blood pressure, everyone will be informed and infection will decline. We need to tame the jungle together," she said.