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Living with HIV: Ethiopia’s positive women

6 August 2015 - Amanda Farrant

In Ethiopia, coffee is more than just a hot drink: coffee is community, coffee is hospitality, coffee is connection. I got a glimpse into just how central coffee is to Ethiopian society during a visit to the bustling south-western town of Hossana, when I was invited to take part in an elaborate coffee ceremony.

Climate change in Ethiopia

A mother living with HIV in Hossana town, south-west Ethiopia, holds her HIV-free child. Credit: Christian Aid/M Gonzalez-Noda.

The event took place in a garden late one afternoon, hosted by dozens of women and children. I watched as some of the ladies used leaves and flowers to create a makeshift tablecloth. They then lit some charcoal in a small clay stove and began fry fresh green coffee beans.

As natural resin was placed in the hot embers, the billows of smoke left me intoxicated by the rich smell of roasting coffee and incense. During the traditional ceremony, I was invited to cut a large piece of flat bread presented to me on a large wooden plate. It was only after these rituals have taken place that the coffee drinking and introductions began.

The deep sense of togetherness created by this cultural act underscored the deep sense of loss that must be felt by those excluded from it. The feeling of loss and rejection was all-too-familiar for most of women I met in the Hossana garden that day. Why? Because they are living with HIV.

A devastating impact

HIV-related stigma and discrimination in Ethiopia has a devastating impact on those affected. Not only do they find themselves rejected by their families and communities, but they can also be excluded from other elements of society: people stop eating food from their homes or buying produce they have grown. Of course, it also means you are no longer welcome at the most important local ritual: the coffee ceremony.

Seblework Kebede, a 33-year-old mother of four, knows what it means to be shunned: ‘It is eight years since I have known I am positive. I have lived a very terrible life not being able to be part of the community. I used to sell milk from home: when people heard that I was HIV positive they stopped buying from me. People would call me names like ‘woman with the virus’. It really affected my life.’

Zenebech is 32. Her story is typical of the traumatic experiences many of the women had suffered. ‘I was abducted when I was 18 and forced into marriage,’ she says. ‘I have two children. Some years later my husband died. I got tested after he died and found out I was positive, along with my children who are now 10 and five. They get bullied a lot at school.’

She continues: ‘When my brother-in-law found out we were HIV positive, he took our property from us and forced us to move away. So we left the rural area where we had been living and my sister helped me to come to the town. I was stigmatised like hell. When landlords found out that I was positive, they caused problems and tried to evict us. I wanted to kill myself.’

A lifeline

Unsurprisingly, a very real fear about such stigma often prevents women and men from disclosing their HIV status – even to their spouses. Many are left to suffer in silence rather than risk being shunned. But Seblework and Zenebech have received a lifeline from a local group: the Tesfa Association of Women Living with HIV, a grassroots organisation that supports those affected by the virus.

Climate change in Ethiopia

Seblework Kebede (left) and Roman Alemu, are both members of a mother support group run by Tesfa in Hossana town, south-west Ethiopia. Credit: Christian Aid/M Gonzalez-Noda

Set up in 2001, the Tesfa Association is part of the National Network of Positive Women Ethiopians, a partner of the international development charity Christian Aid.  Tesfa is working hard to complement the Ethiopian government’s efforts to end HIV and tackle the associated stigma and discrimination.

Mothers like Seblework and Zenebech are key weapons in Tesfa’s fight to demonstrate that it is possible to live a happy, healthy and fulfilling life with the virus. Its network of volunteers – all of whom live with HIV – put their energies into debunking myths surrounding HIV, raising awareness of how to prevent the virus and making sure people understand the need to get tested. The volunteers also encourage people to disclose their HIV status so that they can access medical, social and/or financial assistance from health facilities, government departments and networks like Tesfa.

Tesfa’s ‘Mother Mentors’ scheme is a support group that empowers women like Seblework to care for others living with the virus. The ‘Mother Mentors’ encourage and teach women about HIV, show them how to ‘live positively’ and give advice on how to prevent transmission or infection, especially for those who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

A Changed Life

Seblework was inspired to become a home-based carer for Tesfa after getting support from other women in the network. She says her life changed when she joined a support group three years ago, which prompted her to disclose her status. 

‘Now I can raise my children and lead a happy life,’ she says. ‘Now I am working as part of a mother support group. I volunteer to counsel many mothers, and because of this I am able to save the lives of many people.’

Roman Alemu, a 33-year-old mother of three, is mentored by Seblework as part of the mother support group. She says:

‘When I first discovered [I was HIV positive] I was totally desperate and didn’t tell anyone. If I had to go to the hospital to take medicines, I would look to see if there was anyone around who knew me. If there was, I would go [home] without taking the medicines and look for another opportunity.

‘Then I met Seblework. She told me I could live a life again; that I could take care of my children and even give birth to an HIV-negative child. I realised that I had the chance to live a happy life. I decided to disclose myself and in turn support many mothers to save their lives and the lives of their children.

‘Now many respect us, but there are still people who don’t want to be seen with us. That’s why there is still a lot of work to be done on stigma.’

Climate change in Ethiopia

Mothers living with HIV meet their HIV positive mentors in Hossana town in south west Ethiopia. Credit: Christian Aid/M Gonzalez-Noda.

This blog first appeared on Medium.

About the author

Amanda Farrant is a Christian Aid Donor Communications Adviser.

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