Sunday, May 20, 2012

Choosing Suicide over Breaking the Silence

In many African countries, especially in Zambia, there is a strong stigma against women affected by HIV/AIDS.  Communities blame these women for bringing the disease into their marriages, despite the prevalence of their husbands having multiple extramarital sex partners. Dangerous stereotypes exist against the women, making it difficult for them to engage in daily community life. They are often seen as promiscuous, immoral, and untrustworthy. Despite billions of dollars invested in educational projects and raising awareness, it is difficult for many Zambians and other Africans to accept that these women may have only had one life partner.

As their families and communities reject them, these HIV positive/AIDS-infected women often resort to desperate measures including suicide. This was the case of 41-year old Linda Kabengele, who on May 4, 2011, was found dead at a local tavern.  Out of desperation, she burned herself to death, leaving only her scalded remains.

Meanwhile, there are dissenting voices against the claim that stigmatization is prevalent.  National AIDS Council spokesman Justin Mwiinga contends that the Kabengele suicide is an “isolated incident” and that negative perceptions against the infected are waning.  “Whatever the case, the stigma is not among the six main drivers; it is not a serious threat to the extent it used to be.” said Mwiinga.

Others would beg to differ.  According to Winston Zulu, the first openly HIV positive individual in Zambia, the shame remains alive and well, and is worse than any other obstacle to overcome.  Said Zulu, “I fight HIV, but then I also fight the stigma, because HIV itself can attach your gut, it can attack your brain sometimes, it attacks your immune system, but the biggest attack comes from the people outside.”  The situation may be particularly dire considering the fact that 12 million African children are already orphaned due to AIDS and suicide is exacerbating the trend of orphan-hood.

Regardless of whether or not the stigmatization against African women, and all AIDS/HIV patients in general, is now fading, it remains an important issue.  Before she died in 2007,  eminent Zambian journalist Mildred Mpundu, made headlines by being the first female public figure to announce her HIV status. She later left her job after feeling ostracized for having disclosed her status. While she considered suicide and went back and forth about it, she later said she came out feeling stronger in the end. She was an inspiration to thousands and once said, “You shouldn't just write, but do as you write so that readers can follow your example. I would encourage people to test and come out in the open and I would like to help other journalists because we journalists tend to hide.” If Zambia and Africa in general had more women leaders like the late Mpundu, more women would consider life and activism, as opposed to suicide and forced silence.  It's time for the silence to end.