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African Women with HIV Speak Out


Following their 11th conference in Burkina Faso, officials with the only pan-African non-profit organization dedicated to HIV-positive women say there is a still a lot to do to fight stigma and violence against infected women. Phuong Tran has this report from VOA's West Africa Bureau in Dakar with additional reporting from Zoumana Wonogo in Ouagadougou.

The president of the Society for Women and AIDS in Africa, Bernice Heloo, says it is time to talk openly about why women in Africa are more susceptible to HIV infection.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified marital violence and rape as two reasons women and girls are more vulnerable than males.

Also deadly for women are the village traditions of genital mutilation, wife inheritance - when a woman is given in marriage to her brother-in-law - and childhood marriage.

Heloo says it is important for people to recognize that these traditions, reserved for females, are linked to HIV.

"So that people will start talking about gender and other underlying factors when they think about HIV," she said. "This is currently not done. We are going to start it now from this conference."

Heloo says the violence gets worse after a female is diagnosed HIV positive. She says HIV-positive girls are often forced to drop out of school because of harassment.

Health workers say many communities blame females for HIV transmission and strike back violently against them.

Burkinabe singer Pyanne Djire, who is HIV positive, says stopping harmful village traditions is just a first step.

She adds that another solution is helping HIV-infected women get job training, economic assistance and education to counter the financial and emotional costs of carrying the disease.

The singer says economic independence helps women protect themselves from violence because it frees them from dependence on an abusive partner.

Bernice Heloo says one conference goal is to begin planning an awareness campaign about women and HIV to be presented first in Africa, and then to international audiences.

Almost 600 participants from 24 countries attended the five-day conference dedicated to gender and human rights. Participants discussed how countries can meet U.N. Millennium Development goals by improving the care and treatment of HIV-infected women.