When Silence Brings You HIV

Being HIV positive for almost ten years now, I have had my fair share of serious and not so serious infections which have at times seen my immune system succumb and often come close to collapse. I would believe that I had full-blown Aids only to revert back to being HIV positive after some interventions.

In December 1999, on the eve of the new millennium, I was raped by two young men. I don’t know if that was when I contract HIV.  But I distinctly remember in December 2003, a sexual liaisons with someone who knew his status, and apparently, was on a mission to infect as many women as possible by luring them to his house, never intending to use a condom. As intelligent – and HIV aware – as I was, especially because I was at the time a volunteer at an HIV & Aids24 hour trauma centre (IKhaya Lobomi), just outside Botha’s Hill in that magnificently well sculptured landscape known as The Valley of a Thousand  Hills, I fell prey to his scheme. He won his quest.

And now he’s dead. I met him just before he died several years ago on the street. He looked like he was suffering ; losing his balance as he wobbled by. I never said a word to him, nor him to me. His physical condition told all and I dared not mocked him.

But immediately after I had slept with him I had a truly horrible vaginal thrush, which became uncontrollable, covered with red blisters. Oh! The pain from itching! I knew, immediately, that it was him. I called Patience, who did an HIV blood test which came back HIV negative. However she said to me “Sis Faith – we will only be certain after another test in three months.”

So together with a woman doctor who was also a volunteer at Ikhaya Lobomi, a gynecologist, Patience tried to manage this infection. Not every prescribed medication would work immediately, which meant that, at night, while people were preparing to sleep, the itch would come back in an unforgiving manner.

I would yank and pull my hair, sit in a cold bath and scratch, while crying

I would yank and pull my hair, sit in a cold bath and scratch, while crying. I had someone in hand always willing to help and I would phone him. I remember that late one night, I had, all alone oblivious to the danger I was putting myself in as a woman,  walked to the police station to call him. When he got to me we drove to the doctor’s house. Without a hint of being upset or offended, the doctor welcomed us into her home.

That night she gave me beeswax based medication. It became a breakthrough salve when I applied it. So that infection was overcome. While this was all happening, I had just been employed on contract by SABC Radio to specially report on events taking place prior, during and after, the 2004 local elections.

This was the highlight of my media career. During this contractual employment, another infection hit me, and this one, right on my face. It was dermatitis: like thousands of black ants crawling furiously all over my face. And I was scared to scratch my face – you know how egotistical we women are when it comes to our faces.

I endured this bad itch without scratching my face. I was scared of scaring it so I would just pat it all over with the palms of my hands. Patience said another HIV test was due. And it came back positive. Right then I had no time to emotionally deal with the news I was concerned about my face. I remember thinking that at least my SABC contract was for radio and not television, so the people who heard my voice did not know my predicament. I also remember saying to God, how can He allow this infection to be in my face because as much as I was HIV positive, I was still a woman and that my face meant a lot to me.

The way I had excelled in my job at the SABC, everyone was gunning for me to become fully employed but the gun has stopped with a certain male official.

Again, as much as it was a man who did not want to help me advance in my career, and as  it was a man who had deliberately infected me with HIV, it was also a man who provided constant emotional, physical, mental and financial support: my ex. To him I was still intelligent, mentally challenging, funny and sexy – as well as a lot of headache at times. I gave him flak.

So what is the issue? Incidences of daily infections for youth in their twenties is about 8 per cent. In South Africa, experts say over 17 000 people die every single day from Aids. Currently, there are 6 million people living with HIV. The infection rate amongst pregnant women has risen from 29.4 per cent last year to 30 per cent this year.

In South Africa women have no ownership, or rights, over their vaginas

I can bet that most of the 6 million living with HIV are women, from the working class, from poor communities, or unemployed. The reason why I say that I can bet the gender primarily infected and impacted with HIV in South Africa are females women is because poor and unemployed women – and even some from the working class – have no ownership, or rights, over their vaginas (and I can be polite and say reproductive organs – but I won’t). This is so because of their financial dependency on men.

The excellent research results from a handful of African organisations and universities integrated as the EU-Africa project: CoBaSys (Community Health Systems for HIV Treatment) says much of the same: the highest rates of infection come from women stuck in financially dependent relationships where the only right is the right of the man. Women without income, fighting for daily bread, turn to risky sex work. Women caught in poverty traps with little opportunity for water and waste sanitation, living in close quarters with too many people, are easily re-infected. Women afraid of violence and abuse, stigmatization, being labeled adulterous and other similar vicious outcomes, like abandonment, may be too frightened or intimidated to pursue testing and treatment. The extra costs – $2 or more, to travel to clinics that are based so far away, make it impossible. If they try it becomes dangerous for their lives, and costly for the businesses they leave behind, which feed their children. Women women women, the report says, are always hit hardest, and they explain the reasons why.

I can go on and say  every six minutes a woman dies in South Africa at the hands of a man she has been intimate with – whether  a husband, the  father of her child or a lover.  I can say according to the statistics, every few minutes  a woman is beaten up and raped  in South Africa – but then we know that the statistics include reported cases, not those that were kept quiet. Which means that if we had to report all the rape cases and the cases of violence against women, we will no longer be repeating that after every few minutes a woman is either raped or beaten in South Africa. We would be saying, rather, that there is no time at all where a woman is not raped, beaten, violated emotionally and psychologically. We will not need 16 days of Activism to raise awareness against this scourge – we will speak about it every day because it happens every hour, every minute and every second even as I speak.

Poor and unemployed women, women from the working class and to some extent women from the middle class, have been forced by men to forfeit their reproductive rights in issues pertaining to sex and protection from HIV. Women who are dependent on men for their livelihood are forced not to use protection from STDs and HIV infection. Married women have to sleep with cheating husbands without condoms, knowing that they have been unfaithful with other women, knowing they did not use protection during sexual encounters with those women.

Friends of mine who are sex workers say that married men especially from the middle class and the upper classes up their prices when they want to have sex with them without a condom. Most of my sex work friends are drug addicts and are only in the street to get money for another fix and sometimes would accept such proposals knowing that more money means going to the street less to sell one’s body to get high.

Unemployed women depending on their partners can hardly negotiate the using of protection because they get told, I pay the rent, I buy the food and your clothes, and I take care not just only of you but also of your children. That is why it is not so hard to understand that these women who depend on their lovers for their livelihoods sometimes sacrifice their daughters’ reproductive rights at the altar of sexual abuse by their lovers and these cases go unreported, again because of financial dependency.

Some women make a mistake of patting men on their backs by saying, he’s such a good man because he does not abuse – but there shouldn’t be patting on their backs at all because there shouldn’t be a scenario of some abuse.

As one man on a radio station stated a few weeks ago, to people who were being abused, ‘Silence increases Violence’. I would like that to be every individual’s thought for the day.

Faith ka-Manzi is a South African writer and poet who has been living in Cato Manor for more than a decade. Born almost 44 years ago in Durban, she was awarded a Bachelor of Arts in Humanities at the then University of Natal (now UKZN) in 1999 majoring in English and History. She is a former mainstream media journalist for Daily News (with a column – Keeping the Faith), Mail&Guardian, SAPA, Business Day, SundayWorld, SABC among others. Faith is now based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal where she writes and translates works mainly advocating socio-economic, political and environmental issues pertaining to civil society, especially the poor.

This essay originally appeared in The Africa Report.