am more than HIV," Gracia Violeta Ross Quiroga attested, exuding confidence
and passion to a session room overcrowded with delegates of every age,
gender, and race.
message is universal: HIV/AIDS is
more than just an epidemic and HIV-positive people are much more
than victims of the disease. They have desires, hopes and dreams that
transcend social and ethnic barriers: In Graca’s case, it’s the
longing to become pregnant.
HIV-positive people often stumble upon more obstacles on the path to
their goals, and unfortunately, Gracia’s story is no exception. If
her child tests positive for HIV, Gracia could be condemned and criminalized
for transmitting the virus. In deciding to become pregnant, Gracia’s
motives were very similar to those of many other women living with HIV.
She needed something to revitalize life, someone to care for and someone
who needed her back-she wanted a reason to fight.
the other hand, she couldn’t help but feel selfish in her decision-making.
What if her baby was infected? What if her child had to grow up without
a mother? She was fully aware of the risks but could not suppress the
desire for motherhood any longer, and Gracia’s announcement that she
was actively trying to get pregnant was met by an eruption of applause
and for some, tears.
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Only the next day, handfuls of conference-goers trickled into a small
auditorium room nearly an hour late to an afternoon session. Most had
come to hear the last speaker, Gugulethu Kumalo, a 20-year-old woman
from Zimbabwe. Gugu has been HIV positive and has known her status since
she was orphaned by AIDS ten years ago. She has had to deal with the
stigma and discrimination of AIDS all her life. Attending primary school,
Gugu was often teased because of the sores on her face and felt alone
because many of her classmates were afraid to go near her.
entered a program for people living with HIV that helped her find her
inner strength and taught her "that I am beautiful and wonderfully
made. That I am special." Since she had discovered her inner beauty,
Gugu decided to become a beauty technician to uncover the outer beauty
of women and girls. Like Violeta, Gugu could not deter her desire to
be a mother, and became pregnant by a young man with whom she was in
love. Upon discovering the pregnancy, her partner left. This time, Gugu
was not alone. Three months ago, Gugu gave birth to a beautifully healthy
two stories touched me like nothing else at the conference: hearing
about genuine experiences from honest people has a much greater impact
on me than pages of statistics presented in a PowerPoint presentation.
While listening to both speakers, I couldn’t help but think: "That
could be me! What would I do? How would I cope?"
Being a 16-year-old teenage girl growing up in America, I know I am
very privileged and probably have a lot more choices in life than these
two women. Where I live, AIDS is not a pressing issue. Teens as my school
rarely give the risk of contracting HIV any weight in determining when
to have sex. But just because HIV is not as prevalent here doesn’t
mean that it isn’t there.
these two women made me realize that no matter who you are, where you
come from, or what disease you have, women and girls hold a lot of the
same desires. I want to grow up to get married and have healthy children
that are free from the stigma of HIV/AIDS. I was reminded that we are
all one human people, connected by threads of compassion and stories
of hope. Now is our time to focus on the similarities that unite us
rather than the differences that divide us. We must realize that we
are the change and that Violeta and Gugu’s children have now become
will matter is not your success, but your significance. What will matter
is not what you learned but what you taught. What will matter is ever
act of integrity, compassion, courage, or sacrifice that enriched, empowered,
or encouraged others to emulate your example…Living a life that matters
doesn’t happen by accident. It’s not a matter of circumstance, but
a matter of choice." -William Josephson.
is clear that not only do these women refuse to succumb to the HIV/AIDS
pandemic but it is evident that they have both chosen to matter.