One Girl’s Story of Living with HIV

Danielle Toppin

In a series of diary entries for the Jamaica Gleaner, a young woman living with HIV relates the often neglected psychological effects of HIV infection and young motherhood.

When she was seventeen years old,
Gabrielle’s* life took two drastic turns: she became pregnant, and
subsequently, during a routine blood test, discovered that she was HIV-positive. 
In a series of news features being published by the Jamaica Gleaner,
we are able to track some of Gabrielle’s experiences over the past
two years: from losing the father of her child to the disease; to giving
birth to a healthy son; and subsequently meeting her current boyfriend
(also HIV-positive), and becoming pregnant again. 

The series of articles,
The Reality of HIV/AIDS – Diary of an HIV-Positive, Pregnant
gives us a glimpse into a largely hidden world, highlighting
some of the challenges faced by pregnant teenagers, in particular those
that are also HIV-positive.  Now five months pregnant, Gabrielle’s
stories underline issues such as discrimination and inadequate health
care, pointing to how they have shaped her experiences of pregnancy. 

One of the issues highlighted
is the sexual vulnerability of many HIV-infected persons who, displaced
from their homes, may end up in housing arrangements that put them at
particular risk. Gabrielle, who at the time was living with a relative
of her late boyfriend, had to endure the (sometimes violent) advances
of a man who felt entitled to sleep with her by virtue of the fact that
he was providing her with a place to stay.

Discrimination against
those living with HIV/AIDS often takes the form of them being ejected
from their households upon discovery of the disease, and subsequently
having to live in unsafe domestic situations.  Factors such as
inadequate job skills;,insufficient education and subsequently, limited
job opportunities disproportionately affect women in poorer socio-economic
settings.  For those with limited income earning abilities, homelessness
is not an easily solved challenge.  Many people, and women in particular,
are forced to endure living arrangements in which they may be subjected
to unwanted sexual advances, and further, sexual abuse such as rape.

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The teenager’s story
highlights another impact of discrimination against those living with
HIV/AIDS: inadequate service from health care providers.  Many
teenagers who become pregnant relate the negative ways in which they
are treated by health care providers, who judge them for having sex
at their young age, and further for becoming pregnant.  In the
case of a
pregnant teenager who is also HIV-positive
there is a potential double burden, increasing the likelihood that they
will receive inadequate service, as a result of the ways in which they
are perceived.

Gabrielle’s recollection
of interacting with a nurse who persistently scolds her for becoming pregnant
knowing she is HIV-positive, is coloued by the obvious discomfort felt
by the teenager, a discomfort which has made her fearful and reluctant
to go to the health care centre.   Noting that the nurse makes
her “feel like she is standing on a stool looking down at (her) and
judging (her)”, Gabrielle brings to the forefront the ways in which
health care services for those living with HIV/AIDS is often compromised
when intersected with value systems that negatively judge infected persons
and their presumed lifestyle.

Poignantly, Gabrielle
also highlights the fear
that she feels for her child
noting that there is a deep concern amongst HIV-infected mothers-to-be
that their children will contract the disease.  In her emotional
tale, the often-ignored nuanced emotional needs of young women such
as Gabrielle are brought to the fore, underlining another key shortfall
in many of the health care policies on HIV/AIDS – the psychological
impact of the disease, particularly in the case, the needs of HIV-positive,
pregnant women.  Beyond the concerns for self that will typically
confront infected persons, there is the further sense of responsibility
for the health of one’s unborn child.

The experiences of this
young woman have touched
the hearts of many
who may
not have otherwise heard her story.  While the articles do highlight
many of the daily challenges faced by the young woman, my one concern
is that it also adopts a common approach to reporting on HIV/AIDS: the
heavy focus on the tragedy of the situation.  This technique plays
heavily on the emotional side of the story, and while it is useful in
promoting the humanity of those living the disease, it tends to cast
them in somewhat of a victim role.  An integrated approach to reporting
in contrast, highlights not only the challenges faced, but also the
way forward as people find new ways to manage their disease and their
lives — that there is hope for redemption.

That said, the groundbreaking
series of articles does take a step towards clearing the air to allow
for deeper and more progressive interactions on the issue of HIV/AIDS
and the numerous and specific ways in which it affects the lives of
those who live with it.

*Names have been changed.

Topics and Tags:

HIV AIDS, People Living With HIV

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