Since the start of the global AIDS epidemic, women have been disproportionately affected by HIV. Today, women constitute for more than half of all people living with HIV. For women aged 15 to 44, HIV is the leading cause of death worldwide, with unsafe sex being the main risk factor in developing countries. Additionally, a lack of access to information and health services, economic vulnerability, and unequal power in sexual relations expose women — particularly young women — to HIV infection. These were just some of the key takeaways that I took from attending the International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA). I also had the pleasure of meeting two women at ICASA, who were both infected with HIV by their husbands: Pauline Mounton from Cameroon and Jeanne Gapiya from Burundi. Their stories of resilience, hope, and grit will hopefully bring more attention to the effects of HIV on women across the world.
On the continent of Africa, many thought that AIDS was only something that plagued western nations. Like many, Jeanne’s reality was shattered when she brought her sick infant son to the hospital and learned about his and her own diagnosis. Unfortunately, Jeanne lost both her husband and son in the years to come. These tragic and sudden life-changing events could have caused Jeanne to shut down and consider her diagnosis as a death sentence. “People did not expect me, a former woman’s basketball player for the national Burundian team, to be HIV positive. But once I opened up about my HIV status to friends and family, I gained the courage and strength to help those who have been affected by this disease.” In 1993, Jeanne founded The Burundian National Association of Support for People Living with HIV and AIDS (ANSS). ANSS’ mission is to promote the prevention of HIV transmission and to improve the well-being of people living with and affected by HIV. The ANSS was the first civil society organization in the country to provide HIV services to people living with HIV, including the distribution of antiretroviral therapy. From 2007 to 2013, the association provided HIV counselling and testing to more than 56,000 people as part of its HIV prevention efforts.