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IRIN/PlusNews Examines Stigma Surrounding HIV-Positive Pregnant Women

January 28, 2009

IRIN/PlusNews on Monday examined the stigma some pregnant women living with HIV face, particularly in Southern Africa. According to a study of U.S. women living with HIV released at the XVII International AIDS Conference last year, about 50% of the respondents said they believed women living with the virus could have children if the appropriate care to prevent mother-to-child-transmission is taken. However, about the same percentage said they felt society strongly discouraged them from doing this, showing what researchers call a "dichotomy between the women's views about their bodies and society's" views, IRIN/PlusNews reports. Emma Tuahepa, an advocate and the first woman in Namibia to publically disclose her HIV-positive status, said that pregnant women living with HIV in the country are still stigmatized, despite the availability of services to prevent MTCT for the past seven years. She said that women who are living with the virus are "seen as irresponsible in getting pregnant, in not looking at your own health ... you are seen as adding to an existing problem."

IRIN/PlusNews reports that there are almost 300,000 pregnancies annually in South Africa that involve women living with HIV. Rakgadi Mohlahlane, program manager at South Africa's Center for the Study of AIDS and a researcher investigating stigma, said that stigma "happens for a variety of reasons and it's not based in any reality -- it's based on people's perceptions." She added that the perceptions "started from an attempt to moralize" the HIV/AIDS pandemic to say that a woman "who behaves a certain way deserves to have HIV, or doesn't deserve to have a child." Nomfundo Eland, national program manager for women's rights at the Treatment Action Campaign, said that pregnant women living with HIV are still treated unfairly because "people think HIV-positive women shouldn't be having unsafe sex, which is why they are pregnant."

Priscilla Khauoe -- a woman living with HIV who had a child seven years ago and now works as a testing counselor for Persevere Until Something Happens in South Africa -- said people "think that when you have HIV, you are sick and you are dying" and that a person with the virus cannot have an infant because the infant with be "sick; it will die." Eland said that TAC works with women to "try to explain about issues of reproductive rights and that, in most cases, pregnancies should be about planning." Eland added that people "need to be aware that women who are HIV-positive are also women, and have to enjoy their reproductive rights" (IRIN/PlusNews, 1/26).

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