26 September 2017
By Mirirai Nsingo and Tinashe Rufurwadzo
*Chipo had lost hope to live after having been born of an HIV positive mother who later succumbed to an HIV related illness leaving her under the care of her father who married another woman.
Chipo, now 17, was infected with HIV at birth and grew up experiencing ill health while her guardians were not willing to take her for HIV testing and counseling.
She only came to know of her status at the age of 10, when her maternal grandmother who lives in Gweru took her for HIV testing and she had difficulties accepting her status and getting to understand why and how she got infected.
“I grew up with my stepmother and would always be cursed because of my ill health. Unlike my peers, I was weak and sick most of the times and I suffered a lot of stigma both at home and at school because of poor health. I had no sense of belonging.
“It was only when my grandmother took me for HIV testing that I got to understand why I was always sick although it all did not make sense. The question that always came into mind, was ‘Why me?’ Was it not enough that I had lost my mother at a very tender age, what wrong had I done to them to be infected with this virus that I hardly understood back then?” she recounted.
Even after getting to know her status, the battle continued for Chipo as her abusive father and stepmother would often deny her access to medication as they believed that HIV could be cured through traditional healing.
Chipo’s life was that of rejection, stigmatization and resulted in her being depressed which in turn affected her social life and adherence to medication. She developed suicidal tendencies and told herself that she had no purpose to live.
Eventually, Chipo could not take the abuse and fled from Kwekwe, joining her grandmother in Gweru.
Chipo’s health kept deteriorating despite being on anti-retroviral treatment and health care workers at Gweru Provincial Hospital noted Chipo’s high viral load which prompted them to link her to Community Adolescent Treatment Supporter (CATS) facility for enhanced care where she received daily mobile message alerts, weekly home visits from peers who were also living with HIV.
By then, she was regaining confidence and rekindled the desire to pursue her hopes and dreams after getting in contact with the CATS.
Chipo was excited to meet the CATS, who are complementing Zimbabwe’s national efforts to achieve epidemic control by increasing the number of children, adolescents and young people with HIV on antiretroviral therapy (ART), as well as providing subsequent support for those on treatment.
Chipo was invited to a support group where she met other adolescents with HIV who come together to share their experiences.
Through the CATS, an Africaid-Zvandiri programme, Chipo was also linked to a Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored and Safe women project dubbed DREAMS project which miraculously boosted her confidence and resilience.
DREAMS is an ambitious partnership funded through the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to reduce HIV infections among adolescent girls and young women in 10 sub-Saharan African countries.
Chipo was later referred to Youth Advocates Zimbabwe (YAZ), a DREAMS partner in Gweru which is supporting adolescent girls and young women with economic strengthening activities where she enrolled in courses on metal fabrication, financial literacy, and entrepreneurship.
Chipo defied all odds by choosing a trade which is mostly male dominated. This is a clear indication of the determination she now has after all the support she has been receiving from CATS.
“I feel empowered and I am confident in myself, at least I have a skill. Now I see myself as someone with a career in life and with something to do for a living,” said Chipo
She is currently attached with a local fabrication company in Gweru, where she is sharpening her steel fabrication skills and is using the income she is earning from the attachment to do extra mathematics lessons, and she intends to write exams in this subject this year in November.
Chipo now has big dreams of becoming an engineer. The once hopeless Chipo has drastically changed to become a determined, resilient and empowered adolescent girl.
While Chipo was fortunate enough to find youth friendly services that have changed her from a girl with no sense of belonging who had suicidal tendencies to a girl who is determined to face the world and walk with Zimbabwe in attaining an AIDS free generation, the myriad of challenges she once faced mirrors that of the more than 69 000 adolescents estimated to be living with HIV in Zimbabwe.
Health and Child Care ministry’s Aids and TB unit director, Dr Owen Mugurungi acknowledges that adolescents living with HIV in the country faced a myriad of challenges such as adherence issues, youth friend services among other challenges adding that there was need for HIV programming to pay attention on this group if the country was to meet the end AIDS goal.
Dr Mugurungi added that while the coming of the anti-retroviral therapy in the country brought about improved standards of living in people living with HIV, programming should pay attention on the needs of adolescents especially those who were born and are living with HIV, as they constantly face a myriad of challenges that are different from adults.
Girls like Chipo and young women account for 74 percent of new HIV infections among adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa.
Many adolescent girls and young women lack a full range of opportunities and are too often devalued because of gender bias, leading them to be seen as unworthy of investment or protection. Social isolation, economic disadvantage, discriminatory cultural norms, orphanhood, gender-based violence, and school drop-out all contribute to girls’ vulnerability to HIV, challenges which the DREAMS initiative seek to address so as to achieve an AIDS free generation.
“Chipo’s story shows the importance of young people in supporting their peers to cope with their HIV status and continue to pursue their hopes and dreams.
“It shows the important role CATS can play in ensuring that adolescents and young people with HIV do not progress quickly to AIDS. The multi-sectoral approach to supporting adolescents with HIV also proved to be effective in Chipo’s case,” said Executive Director of Africaid, Nicola Willis.
Chipo’s life mirrors that of the over 69 000 adolescents estimated to be living with HIV in the country who continue to face a myriad of challenges that the Africaid-Zvandiri project has tried to address.
According to the 2015 Ministry of Health and Child Care HIV estimates, in Zimbabwe approximately 77, 000 children and 69, 000 adolescents are living with HIV.
Despite significant advances in access to treatment and a decline in deaths due to HIV, HIV-related mortality among children and adolescents in Zimbabwe remains high. HIV is one of the leading causes of mortality in children under five and accounts for 21 percent of children deaths in Zimbabwe. More than 3,400 children and 1,500 adolescents died of HIV-related conditions in 2015.