The Latin America Digital Beat(LADB) is the University of New Mexico's premier English language Latin America news service. Established as a unit of the Latin American and Iberian Institute in 1986, LADB has had an Internet presence since 1996. LADB is located on the UNM campus in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Monday, July 2, 2012
Latin American Women Suffering from HIV/AIDS Battle Prejudice and Discrimination
LADB Article ID:
By Louisa Reynolds
Flora, a 50-year-old Guatemalan woman, knew that her husband was
terminally ill. For three years, she had been aware that he was taking
medication but never knew what his bottles of variously colored pills
contained until two days before he died in hospital, when the doctors
took her blood sample and she was diagnosed with HIV.
"I had never had intercourse with anyone else. He told me, 'I’m
going to die, and you will too.' The doctors found out what was wrong
long before I did," Flora says.
Flora was one of the 57 HIV-positive women interviewed as part of the
study "Our Stories, our Words: The Situation Faced by Women Living with
HIV in 14 Latin American Countries," published in May by the Movimiento
Latinoamericano y del Caribe de Mujeres Positivas (MLCM+).
Researchers from MLCM+ talked to women from Argentina, Bolivia,
Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama,
Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela, all between 20 and 79 years of
age, using semi-structured interviews that included questions related to
their social and ethnic background, how they discovered they were HIV
positive, how they had managed their illness, its impact on their family
life, relationships, and work, and other issues such as violence and
Most interviewees fell within the 18 to 29, 30 to 39, and 40 to 49
age groups, and only nine of the 57 women interviewed lived in rural
areas. Eleven were indigenous, six were mestizo, three were of
Afro-Caribbean descent, and the rest did not identify themselves as part
of a specific ethnic group. To protect their right to confidentiality,
their real names were not recorded. This is the first time that this
kind of study has been carried out in Latin America.
More than 25% of the women interviewed, like Flora, found out they
were HIV positive after their partner became ill or died of AIDS, which
led to feelings of denial and disbelief. With the exception of three
interviewees who attributed their illness to drug use and four women who
were raped by strangers, all had become infected during heterosexual
relationships with long-term partners.
Discrimination at home and in workplace
Many women interviewed spoke about how their illness had led them to
feel stigmatized, as most people, including family members, the doctors
treating them, colleagues at work, or teachers and parents at their
children’s school, associated HIV with sex work or "promiscuity."
Marcela, 32, from Bolivia, worked as a kitchen assistant in a small
restaurant. After one of her colleagues revealed the nature of her
illness, Marcela was fired, even though she had never been late for
work. Her bosses never explained the reason she had been made
redundant, though she suspected it was because she was HIV positive.
"My older brother marked a set of kitchen utensils so that only I
would use them, and my mother used to say that my illness was God’s way
of punishing me for my bad behavior," said Carmen, 35, from Venezuela.
Most women interviewed said that they had suffered a loss of sexual
desire because of feelings of guilt or shame, or from the weakening
effects of antiretroviral drugs. Most had been told by health workers
that they had to use condoms to avoid infecting sexual partners, but
their partners often refused to have protected sex.
"I was afraid of having sex and infecting my partner because we are
always made to believe that women are the source of the virus. The
problem is that, when you tell a man to use a condom, he always asks
why," said Clara, 42, from Bolivia.
Sixty seven percent of the women interviewed had suffered physical,
psychological, or sexual violence during their lives, either during
their childhood and adolescence or in their relationships, a situation
that was worsened once their condition was revealed.
"My last partner used to insult and hit me. He called me an
'AIDS-infested nigger' and said that I ought to be grateful that he
wanted to have sex with me," said Marta, 42, from Colombia.
Interviewees described misogynistic relationships in which their
partners refused to have protected sex and decided when and how often
intercourse would occur.
Deficiencies in access to health care
Many women said that they were often forced to travel for several
hours to the nearest hospital to receive treatment and that
transportation costs had exacerbated their poverty. Others, such as
Cinthia, 25, from Bolivia, said that they had stopped receiving
treatment because the hospitals had run out of antiretroviral drugs.
Other women abandoned their treatment because they felt unable to
cope with lypodystrophy, a medical condition characterized by abnormal
or degenerative conditions of the body’s adipose tissue, one of the most
common side effects associated with antiretroviral drugs. Only Brazil
has a specific government policy on treating this particular condition.
Most women interviewed had been subjected to prejudice from health
workers. "One day I was crying, and the doctor said, 'Why are you
crying? If you hadn’t slept with so many men you wouldn’t have this
illness.' That was completely untrue, but I was too upset to answer
back, and I just cried in silence," said Clara, 42, from Bolivia.
Many interviewees were tested for HIV/AIDS without their prior
consent and very few of them received any counseling before they were
informed of their condition.
Health workers often stigmatized them. "When they realized that I
was HIV positive, they put on gloves and two white coats. 'What’s wrong
with me? What have I got?' I kept asking, but they said nothing. They
pulled the bed covers off me and put them in a plastic bag as if I had
the plague. I kept asking what was wrong with me, and a nurse burst
into tears and hugged me and said, 'You´re going to live, you’ll see.'
The last thing that crossed my mind was that I could have AIDS. Then, I
was taken out of the ward and left in the corridor, wrapped in a nylon
sheet because they said that my illness was too contagious and that they
didn’t know where to put me." This is how Clara described the stay in
hospital during which she was diagnosed.
Many women reported that they were refused medical attention by
gynecologists and dentists and that some doctors explained that because
of their illness they were forced to wear two pairs of gloves as a
Even though, if properly handled, HIV is no longer an obstacle for a
normal and healthy birth, most interviewees were strongly advised
against getting pregnant and some were forcibly sterilized.
The report’s final recommendations include the creation of
gender-specific policies on the treatment of HIV/AIDS patients, the
participation of HIV-positive women in public policy, information, and
awareness-raising campaigns to fight stigma and prejudice, and the
development of employment programs for HIV positive women.