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IRIN PlusNews HIV/AIDS News and information service | West Africa | SENEGAL: Female AIDS campaigner wants to spread her wings but husband in the way | | Focus
Sunday 18 December 2005
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SENEGAL: Female AIDS campaigner wants to spread her wings but husband in the way

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

©  Pierre Holtz/IRIN

HIV-positive women in Senegal often have problems talking publicly about the virus

DAKAR, 9 March (PLUSNEWS) - She is still hesitant about saying it but Fatou seems to have made up her mind. She will leave her husband if he carries on stopping her from speaking openly about being HIV-positive and helping her sisters.

Fatou is the president of 'United In Hope', Senegal's only association for women living with AIDS. But she is keen to cast her net wider than the current 150 members. She wants, as she puts it, "to shout from the rooftops."

"I know that I could help lots more people, I could help the whole nation, all Senegalese women if I was ... more visible ... if I could speak without covering my face, if I could publicise my association," said the 31-year-old, who doesn't want to use her real name.

"If my husband doesn't let me do this, then I'll leave him," Fatou, dressed in an elegant mauve outfit with pearl-decorated shoes, told PlusNews. "I'm trying to convince him ... but if I can't then I will leave him to serve my country and my sisters."

Although her husband wants to keep Fatou's illness in the family and doesn't like the public dimension to her fight, he has been very supportive of her individual battle with the HI virus since she was diagnosed eight years ago.

"It's thanks to him and my children that I got through this," Fatou explains. "Lots of women are at a loss because they have to cope with the situation alone ... That wasn't the case with me."

In fact it was not even Fatou that discovered she was HIV positive. While she was pregnant with the couple's first child she kept falling ill and the sickness continued after her daughter was born.

The doctors ran tests and before she knew it they were telling her husband she was HIV positive. Her husband got himself tested and found he too had the virus.

Blame game

"We argued a lot about who was responsible. We kept putting the blame at each others door," Fatou recalled. "And then one day we said 'this has to stop'... and we never talked about it again."

For two years, Fatou tried to come to terms with what had happened to her. Without a proper education or a job, she stayed home.

"One day I told myself that I might as well die if I was going to spend another minute hidden away in the house," she said.
Her husband was not too happy.

"He didn't want to hear anything about it. I wasn't to go out and talk to people about what had happened to us," Fatou explained.

But at the health centre that she went to regularly, she began chatting to other HIV-positive women. From there, the idea took shape of forming an association to allow the women to get together and help each other.

There were six members when United In Hope was launched in June 2001. Then came funding from Senegal's National AIDS Agency (ANCS), the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the Hope for African Children (HACI). Now there are 150 members aged between 15 and 60 years old.

Fatou started out as treasurer for the association but became president last June when the incumbent died.

"The women in our association are nearly all dependent on their husbands or their families and it's difficult for them to be autonomous," she told PlusNews. "The polygamy is awful. They cannot and do not know how to manage their sex lives and they don't know how to talk about it."

As a never-ending stream of women put their heads round the door to ask for help, Fatou describes how many HIV-positive women have to keep on working while their HIV-positive husbands give up their jobs.

Heavier burden

About half of the association members are taking life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs and trying to keep the house running and the children looked after almost single-handedly.
United In Hope helps women set themselves up in work, helping them to learn computer skills or sell vegetables and fabrics. It also holds monthly discussion groups to give women a forum to air their problems.

"We try to convince them to confide in their families because it's crucial that they have someone who understands what they are suffering and who can help them when they are too weak. But it's a long process," Fatou said.

She took two years to tell her own parents.

"My mother asked me straight away who was responsible. And I said that I didn't know to protect my husband. Since then they have been a big support, they phone me, they give me money. It's very important to me," she said.

She is also gradually helping her four children, who range from three to 10 years old, to understand the disease although they do not know their parents are living with it.

"I speak about AIDS with my oldest daughter. I have to for the family's sake and for the sake of other children," Fatou explained.

She talks excitedly about the break-throughs that have happened since she became an AIDS campaigner.

For example, since the beginning of 2005, the National Council To Fight AIDS (CNLS) has also agreed to pay the rent for United In Hope and 12 other associations who help people living with the disease.

Buoyed by these successes, Fatou still wants to bring her husband round.

"I have become strong now and I am trying to share that strength with others," she said. "My only problem is him."


Recent SENEGAL Reports
Students increasingly a target of HIV-prevention campaigns,  6/Dec/05
Despite awareness campaigns, young people are reluctant to get HIV tested,  5/Oct/05
Even when companies commit to HIV care, getting message across can be difficult,  12/Aug/05
AIDS takes hold in pilgrim town of Touba,  4/Apr/05
Gay community plays it quietly in face of social taboos,  21/Jan/05
AIDS Media Center
Le portail d'informations générales de la Côte d’Ivoire
VIH Internet
Sida Info Services

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