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Farm Radio Weekly is a news and information service for rural radio broadcasters in sub-Saharan Africa. It is published by Farm Radio International.

Farm Radio Weekly

Congo-Brazzaville: Stigma still a barrier for mixed HIV status couples (by Privat Tiburce Massanga, for Farm Radio Weekly)

Fénelon Mboumba sits under a mango tree cradling his newborn baby. He knows all about the stigma faced by those living with HIV. In his home village near Mossendjo in southern Congo-Brazzaville, villagers still struggle to accept those who live with HIV, and even those who live with an HIV-positive partner.

Ibouanga Madeleine is married to Mr. Mboumba. Because she lives with HIV, the couple were forced to relocate to the city of Brazzaville.

Mr. Mboumba says that living with other people’s negative attitudes is often more difficult than dealing with the virus. He adds: “My wife was pregnant and suffering from tuberculosis. We already had two kids. My friends and family pushed me to separate [from her] because she presented clinical signs of HIV.”

Although criticized, mocked and publicly humiliated, Mr. Mboumba insists he would never leave his wife because of her HIV status. The couple abandoned their cassava fields and moved to the city to escape villagers’ ridicule.

Tears stream from Mr. Mboumba’s eyes as he says, “I doubted [our HIV statuses until] the day when we came to Brazzaville to take the tests. The tests showed that I was negative but my wife was positive.”

After a short silence, he gives a wry smile and adds: “The relatives who had hosted us [in the city] no longer wanted us in their home. We spent two weeks sleeping under the stars, not knowing where to go. It was very difficult until someone told us about the Association Femmes Solidaires. [The association] took us in and helped us.”

The association encouraged Mrs. Ibouanga to start anti-retroviral medication, or ARVs. Three months later, her baby was born healthy – she had not passed the virus on to the child.

Sweeping the porch of their new home, Mrs. Ibouanga praises the association. She says: “I cannot thank the association enough. It renewed my taste for life. This trial has shown me how my husband supports me and how great is the ignorance about this disease. I suffered more from other people’s discrimination and mockery than I do from the virus that is eating away at me.”

Emma Tsoulou is the executive director of the Association Femmes Solidaires. The association gives moral support to women facing stigma because they are living with HIV. It also provides social assistance by taking the women in and feeding them.

Mrs. Tsoulou explains the association’s mission, saying: “When these women arrive, it is up to us to explain to them why they have experienced [stigma] either in their neighbourhoods, or from their extended families, or at home. We bring women together to talk; we create a space where women who have suffered similar problems can comfort newcomers.”

Each woman has different needs. Sometimes the association simply provides shelter. It may also offer financial support so a woman can buy food or even start a small business.

Mrs. Ibouanga is grateful for the association’s help. She is also convinced of the benefits of HIV testing, and of anti-retroviral treatment. She says: “I must [now] be a spokeswoman for the fight against HIV and AIDS. Since I stated ARVs, I have put on weight. I must follow doctors’ advice in order not to have a relapse. I was told that I could return to my village if I come back to the city every three months to stock up on drugs. I want to recover my children, and my fields.”

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