World AIDS Day: a healthcare hero in South Africa

By Tracy Doig London,
We shouldn’t treat people with HIV any differently to anyone else
31-year old Nonhlanhla

With great energy, 31-year old Nonhlanhla denounces the ongoing stigma that people living with HIV face in her community. She’s addressing a community meeting about maternal health in the town of Melmoth, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Her impassioned plea is met with cheers and applause.

The event is hosted by Amnesty International and partner organisation Justice and Women (JAW). Over 100 people, including community members who contributed to Amnesty International’s research on why pregnant women are not receiving antenatal care early in their pregnancies, have gathered to discuss the issues and hear the findings. They have also invited government officials so that they can discuss solutions to the problems raised.

Terrible impact
Nearly 30% of pregnant women in South Africa are living with HIV. It means any delay to receiving health care during pregnancy can have a terrible impact. HIV positive women are almost five times more likely to die in or shortly after childbirth than women who are not infected.

At the meeting, when a woman raises concerns about the quality of HIV counselling services at her clinic, Nonhlanhla nods in agreement. “I was pregnant with my second child when I found out I was HIV positive,” she tells me. “I was tested at my local clinic, but the staff were really rude to me. It was very upsetting.”

Peer education
It was only when Nonhlanhla learned about Shintsha Health Initiative (SHINE), an organization of people living openly with HIV who support their peers and fight stigma against HIV, that she realised she was not alone. She became involved in SHINE as a peer educator, reaching out to other young people in her community.

Providing information, especially to young women, is something Nonhlanhla is passionate about: “I was 17 when I had my first child. Young people these days don’t know enough about sex or contraception. They’re also put off asking for contraception and advice because healthcare workers can be very judgmental.”

Fulfilling her dream
These days, Nonhlanhla is fulfilling her dream of reaching out to even more people with information and hope; she has a new role hosting a show called HIV Talk on a local television station.

Rural scenes around Melmoth in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. It can take an hour to walk to the nearest health clinic. Credit: Amnesty International

Rural scenes around Melmoth in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. It can take an hour to walk to the nearest health clinic. Credit: Amnesty International

But lack of information is not the only obstacle. Nonhlanhla knows only too well the difficulties that women face in accessing health services in remote areas. “It takes an hour to walk to my nearest clinic and the closest hospital is an hour in a car,” she tells me. “You can only get a bus to town once a day, and ambulances will not come as the roads are too bad.”

Women have to hire private transport to take them to the clinic or hospital to give birth. This can cost anything between US$30 and US$100 – money that most families do not have. For those who cannot find the money, it means giving birth without medical assistance and increases the risk that the mother and child will die during or shortly after childbirth.

Shine a light
As the meeting ends, Nonhlanhla adds her signature for Amnesty’s Write for Rights campaign, which is focusing on women and girls in Mkhondo, a district experiencing similar problems to Melmoth. “I’m excited about local community groups working together with organizations like Amnesty,” she says. “We need to shine a spotlight on HIV and maternal health. I hope my government will listen to what we’re saying and respond with action.”

Take action
Join Nonhlanhla – write to the South African authorities to make sure all departments work together to stop pregnant and new mothers dying, and to support people living with HIV.

We’re celebrating women’s rights heroes like Nonhlanhla as part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, from 25 November to 10 December.