A Woman’s Fight Against HIV Stigma

Masimba Biriwasha

Floritah Chiradza, an HIV-positive Zimbabwe woman, who shares her journey to help fight discrimination and stigma against HIV. Today is National HIV Testing Day in the United States.

In Zimbabwe, as in many other countries in the region, women's vulnerability is often compounded by the stigma and discrimination they face once their HIV status is revealed. Women who admit to having HIV risk social exclusion and abandonment. Yet disclosure is a valuable tool in achieving acceptance and reducing stigma and discrimination.

When Floritah Chiradza, 40, found out that she was HIV positive, she began putting together a death wish list. She felt so depressed and isolated that her memory deteriorated and she couldn't remember anything.

"I went through a hard time because I couldn't accept my [HIV] status," she said. "I felt silent stigma, where people sideline you without openly telling you. I don't think people realize they are stigmatizing you. Maybe people think they are caring for you but in reality it's stigma at work."

Her husband abandoned her, leaving her with a six-month-old baby. He only returned to her after a year and a half when he was too sick to take care of himself. Chiradza graciously looked after him until he passed away.

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According to UNAIDS, HIV-related stigma and discrimination is a "process of devaluation" of people either living with or associated with HIV. Actions that emerge from stigmatizing attitudes tend to be subtle, and efforts to combat it have been impeded by a lack of tools and tested interventions.

Women living with HIV often find themselves either receiving too much or unwelcome attention within the family and larger community. As a result they lose power, respect and identity through the taking away or diminishing, of their roles, responsibilities and social standing.

After she openly disclosed her status, Chiradza noticed that people around her began to express untoward sympathy towards her. At home, her mother couldn't come to terms with the fact that her daughter was HIV positive. So she preferred to tell relatives and friends that her daughter was suffering from something else. Chiradza's workmates began to isolate her by taking away some of her responsibilities at work.

"Stigma is something that I really went through. In most cases, people don't admit stigmatizing you, nor do they think they are discriminating against you, but some of the things they do show you that stigma and discrimination are real," said Chiradza.

Disclosure can cause an increase in stigma and discrimination, but it is also, paradoxically, an essential step in fighting stigma and discrimination. Before Chiradza disclosed her status, people accepted her even when she fell ill, but things drastically changed after her disclosure.

"I didn't get it easy with my family, particularly my mother. She just couldn't accept that I was HIV positive. She would not allow me to do any tasks, preferring to keep me redundant," said Chiradza.

But Chiradza did not give up. She began taking steps to seek information on how to live positively with HIV—a journey that took her to several support groups for people living with HIV. At her workplace, though she felt isolated, disclosure began the healing process for her.

"I found comfort in talking to people. I realized that I have to talk to people to pull through. So I started talking to my sisters, and my mother, though she could not take it. My mother is one person who made me stand bold and talk about my status because I was trying to convince her that she had to accept me as I was," she said

"Coming out and sharing with friends is the biggest healer. I must say that people who are living positively must be busy building bridges with various societies, rather than digging holes around themselves. Because if you take the digging holes attitude, honestly, you won't make it. But you have to reach out to people instead of waiting for people to come and help you," she said

Chiradza added that a good health care system that puts people first is an essential ingredient in the fight against stigma and discrimination, especially self-stigma. For Chiradza, having a caring physician who supported her with love and understanding was essential in helping her to cope with the disease.

"It's an ingredient that cannot be done without. My doctor was very encouraging. She helped me in the healing process by telling me to access alternative medication as well as to openly talk about my status," she said.

Chiradza said that people tend not to access information because they do not want to talk about the disease due to stigma and discrimination.

"If we can treat HIV and AIDS as any other condition, like diabetes or high blood pressure, everyone will be informed and infection will decline. We need to tame the jungle together," she said.

News Politics

Anti-Choice Democrats: ‘Open The Big Tent’ for Us

Christine Grimaldi & Ally Boguhn

“Make room for pro-life Democrats and invite pro-life, progressive independents back to the party to focus on the right to parent and ways to help women in crisis or unplanned pregnancies have more choices than abortion,” the group said in a report unveiled to allies at the event, including Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates and the press.

Democrats for Life of America gathered Wednesday in Philadelphia during the party’s convention to honor Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) for his anti-choice viewpoints, and to strategize ways to incorporate their policies into the party.

The group attributed Democratic losses at the state and federal level to the party’s increasing embrace of pro-choice politics. The best way for Democrats to reclaim seats in state houses, governors’ offices, and the U.S. Congress, they charged, is to “open the big tent” to candidates who oppose legal abortion care.

“Make room for pro-life Democrats and invite pro-life, progressive independents back to the party to focus on the right to parent and ways to help women in crisis or unplanned pregnancies have more choices than abortion,” the group said in a report unveiled to allies at the event, including Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates and the press.

Democrats for Life of America members repeatedly attempted to distance themselves from Republicans, reiterating their support for policies such as Medicaid expansion and paid maternity leave, which they believe could convince people to carry their pregnancies to term.

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Their strategy, however, could have been lifted directly from conservatives’ anti-choice playbook.

The group relies, in part, on data from Marist, a group associated with anti-choice polling, to suggest that many in the party side with them on abortion rights. Executive Director Kristen Day could not explain to Rewire why the group supports a 20-week abortion ban, while Janet Robert, president of the group’s board of directors, trotted out scientifically false claims about fetal pain

Day told Rewire that she is working with pro-choice Democrats, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, both from New York, on paid maternity leave. Day said she met with DeLauro the day before the group’s event.

Day identifies with Democrats despite a platform that for the first time embraces the repeal of restrictions for federal funding of abortion care. 

“Those are my people,” she said.

Day claimed to have been “kicked out of the pro-life movement” for supporting the Affordable Care Act. She said Democrats for Life of America is “not opposed to contraception,” though the group filed an amicus brief in U.S. Supreme Court cases on contraception. 

Democrats for Life of America says it has important allies in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Sens. Joe Donnelly (IN), Joe Manchin (WV), and Rep. Dan Lipinski (IL), along with former Rep. Bart Stupak (MI), serve on the group’s board of advisors, according to literature distributed at the convention.

Another alleged ally, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), came up during Edwards’ speech. Edwards said he had discussed the award, named for Casey’s father, former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey, the defendant in the landmark Supreme Court decision, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which opened up a flood of state-level abortions restrictions as long as those anti-choice policies did not represent an “undue burden.”

“Last night I happened to have the opportunity to speak to Sen. Bob Casey, and I told him … I was in Philadelphia, receiving this award today named after his father,” Edwards said.

The Louisiana governor added that though it may not seem it, there are many more anti-choice Democrats like the two of them who aren’t comfortable coming forward about their views.

“I’m telling you there are many more people out there like us than you might imagine,” Edwards said. “But sometimes it’s easier for those folks who feel like we do on these issues to remain silent because they’re not going to  be questioned, and they’re not going to be receiving any criticism.”

During his speech, Edwards touted the way he has put his views as an anti-choice Democrat into practice in his home state. “I am a proud Democrat, and I am also very proudly pro-life,” Edwards told the small gathering.

Citing his support for Medicaid expansion in Louisiana—which went into effect July 1—Edwards claimed he had run on an otherwise “progressive” platform except for when it came to abortion rights, adding that his policies demonstrate that “there is a difference between being anti-abortion and being pro-life.”

Edwards later made clear that he was disappointed with news that Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock, whose organization works to elect pro-choice women to office, was being considered to fill the position of party chair in light of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation.

“It wouldn’t” help elect anti-choice politicians to office, said Edwards when asked about it by a reporter. “I don’t want to be overly critical, I don’t know the person, I just know that the signal that would send to the country—and to Democrats such as myself—would just be another step in the opposite direction of being a big tent party [on abortion].” 

Edwards made no secret of his anti-choice viewpoints during his run for governor in 2015. While on the campaign trail, he released a 30-second ad highlighting his wife’s decision not to terminate her pregnancy after a doctor told the couple their daughter would have spina bifida.

He received a 100 percent rating from anti-choice organization Louisiana Right to Life while running for governor, based off a scorecard asking him questions such as, “Do you support the reversal of Roe v. Wade?”

Though the Democratic Party platform and nominee have voiced the party’s support for abortion rights, Edwards has forged ahead with signing numerous pieces of anti-choice legislation into law, including a ban on the commonly used dilation and evacuation (D and E) procedure, and an extension of the state’s abortion care waiting period from 24 hours to 72 hours.

News Politics

NARAL President Tells Her Abortion Story at the Democratic National Convention

Ally Boguhn

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told the story of her abortion on the stage of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) Wednesday evening in Philadelphia.

“Texas women are tough. We approach challenges with clear eyes and full hearts. To succeed in life, all we need are the tools, the trust, and the chance to chart our own path,” Hogue told the crowd on the third night of the party’s convention. “I was fortunate enough to have these things when I found out I was pregnant years ago. I wanted a family, but it was the wrong time.”

“I made the decision that was best for me — to have an abortion — and to get compassionate care at a clinic in my own community,” she continued. “Now, years later, my husband and I are parents to two incredible children.”

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Hogue noted that her experience is similar to those of women nationwide.

“About one in three American women have abortions by the age of 45, and the majority are mothers just trying to take care of the families they already have,” she said. “You see, it’s not as simple as bad girls get abortions and good girls have families. We are the same women at different times in our lives — each making decisions that are the best for us.”

As reported by Yahoo News, “Asked if she was the first to have spoken at a Democratic National Convention about having had an abortion for reasons other than a medical crisis, Hogue replied, ‘As far as I know.'”

Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards on Tuesday night was the first speaker at the DNC in Philadelphia to say the word “abortion” on stage, according to Vox’s Emily Crockett. 

Richards’ use of the word abortion was deliberate, and saying the word helps address the stigma that surrounds it, Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s Vice President of Communication Mary Alice Carter said in an interview with ThinkProgress. 

“When we talk about reproductive health, we talk about the full range of reproductive health, and that includes access to abortion. So we’re very deliberate in saying we stand up for a woman’s right to access an abortion,” Carter said.

“There is so much stigma around abortion and so many people that sit in shame and don’t talk about their abortion, and so it’s very important to have the head of Planned Parenthood say ‘abortion,’ it’s very important for any woman who’s had an abortion to say ‘abortion,’ and it’s important for us to start sharing those stories and start bringing it out of the shadows and recognizing that it’s a normal experience,” she added.

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates. In April, Clinton called out moderators for failing to ask “about a woman’s right to make her own decisions about reproductive health care” over the course of eight debates—though she did not use the term abortion in her condemnation.