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Women with AIDS talk to women with AIDS
Wednesday 30 March 2005
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COTE D IVOIRE: Women with AIDS talk to women with AIDS

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]


Nahounou Kennedy, a member of the Femmes Actives de Cote d'Ivoire self-help group for HIV-positive women, who found the courage to always use her real name

ABIDJAN, 14 January (PLUSNEWS) - They all have a poignant story to tell, and they tell it willingly. The Active Women of Cote d'Ivoire support group for women infected with HIV, is a place where frank talk is encouraged as one of the best ways to deal with the virus. It's a network in true West African style, characterised by an unfailing solidarity.

Take Aminata Kabore, a bespectacled young woman in traditional dress. "I'm not ashamed to tell what my husband has done to me," she said. "In fact, by talking about it, I may save the lives of other women."

A couple of years ago, Aminata, who comes from a Moslem family, married a man who sought to replace his recently deceased second wife. His first wife agreed to the marriage. His third wife would elope several months later.

When Aminata found she was pregnant, she went to hospital for a medical check-up in the lively Abidjan neighborhood of Koumassi. Soon after, the nurses informed her that she was HIV positive. At first, she did not understand. How could it possibly be?

Aminata then learned that the third wife was gravely ill - just like Aminata's predecessor had been before she died. Aminata cautiously informed her husband of her status. He bundled up her few possessions and kicked her out.

"I've heard that he has fallen seriously ill," Aminata said. "He is only 48 years old, he should be in his prime. But despite him being half paralyzed, it would not surprise me if he continues to contaminate other women."

Aminata's playful son was born HIV positive. During her pregnancy, hospital staff referred her to the Active Women of Cote d’Ivoire (Femmes Actives de Cote d'Ivoire) network for support and advice.

Active Women was founded in 2001 and loosely groups 200 members, all living in the commercial capital Abidjan. Its main goal is to provide psychological support to pregnant women who have just found out that they are infected with HIV, to offer advice on how to inform their partner, and to prevent mother-to-child transmission.

A core group of about 20 women meet weekly at a grassy spot in the grounds of Koumassi hospital. These volunteers pull out plastic garden chairs from their tiny headquarters and discuss everything from the latest in nutritional advice for mothers living with HIV/AIDS to the home visits that need to be paid to members who are too sick to move.

It's a modest association with modest means. None of the members are wealthy, some are even desperately poor. But simply sharing with other infected women is priceless, said Nahounou Kennedy, an enthusiastic woman who is one of Active Women's consultants.

"The first time I joined the group, I registered under a false name. But I could hardly believe my eyes when I met the vice-chairwoman. She looked so beautiful. I would never have thought that she was really infected with HIV," Nahounou said.

"That experience marked me profoundly. I realised the fact that I am HIV positive does not mean that I have to look repugnant. At that moment I decided to always try to look as pretty as possible."

From then on, Nahounou also decided to give her real name.

Active Women is one of many HIV/AIDS solidarity groups in Cote d'Ivoire, which has the highest HIV prevalence rate in West Africa. Official data provided by the health ministry indicate that 9.5 percent of the population is infected.

But for such a small, grassroots organisation, it has been remarkably successful in obtaining funding and antiretroviral drugs from organisations like CARE and RETROCI, a US-sponsored research project based in Abidjan focusing on mother-to-child transmission.

"In 2003, we were able to obtain free ARV treatment for 87 women, and we're well over that number now," said Bertine Semilou, the charismatic chairwoman.

"We have tied a partnership with a women's group in Belgium and we'd love to create more, but that won't be easy until we have our own internet connection. We lack funds at the moment."

Fortunately, she added with a smile, providing psychological support can be cheap - often, it means just talking and listening.

From the hospital laboratory next door, dozens of pregnant women have been sent directly to Bertine, who is extremely outspoken about being HIV positive and has even appeared on national TV to talk about her life.

"Women who have just learnt that they are HIV positive need to be told that they are not alone," said Bertine. "We try to console them and accompany them home. It is not unusual that people can't accept the news and start questioning the veracity of the blood test. But we keep talking, listening, and giving advice," she said.

Another of Bertine's achievements is a markedly West African success. "I'm very proud that 170 of our members have told their partner that they are infected with HIV-AIDS."

In a region where men often react violently to the news that their wife or girlfriend is HIV positive, even to the point of cold-heartedly throwing them out, most women don't know how to break the terrible news.

The statuesque young woman who gave her name as Monique tried this strategy.

"It's important to know what kind of man you have to confront," she said. "So I wept for weeks without telling my husband why. I wept and wept and wept. He was very touched by this. I noticed that he was very compassionate towards me."

Monique simultaneously tried to find out how sensitive her husband was on the subject of HIV/AIDS. "I mentioned it every once in a while without telling him everything just to see if it frightened him. For instance, I asked him whether he thought that it was something evil."

Active Women advices its members to broach the subject when the husband in question has eaten a nice home-cooked dinner and has comfortably settled down on the couch. When he feels at ease, he might be more responsive, according to Bertine.

Monique did just that - and broke down in tears once more. It worked. "My husband felt pity for me and wanted to show me that he was a real man, that I could rely on him and that he would take care of me."


Recent COTE D IVOIRE Reports
Doctor concerned by high HIV prevalence rate in forgotten northeast,  15/Mar/05
Children's book tackles AIDS, death and rejection for under-11s,  8/Mar/05
Roadmap against AIDS needs re-think due to war, poverty,  14/Feb/05
HIV/AIDS time-bomb ticking away in rebel north,  11/Feb/05
Tackling the 'Illness of Unknown Origin' with 'pockets of rubber',  8/Feb/05
AIDS Media Center
Le portail d'informations générales de la Côte d’Ivoire
VIH Internet
Sida Info Services

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