Health Minister, Dr Sheila Tlou this week found herself under attack from AIDS non governmental organizations for a remark she made in her World AIDS Day speech allegedly suggesting that women were deliberately infecting their children and partners with the virus.
The Botswana Network on Ethics, Law and HIV\AIDS (BONELA) and Bomme Isago, a network of women living with HIV\AIDS this week issued a press statement expressing concern “about some comments made by Health Minister Sheila Tlou during her World AIDS day Speech in Tsabong.”
Tlou said HIV positive women who fall pregnant were a challenge to zero HIV transmission. The two NGOs said they agreed with Tlou when she said the position of Government is that every citizen has the right to have children.
They were, however, disturbed by the comment that followed: “Nobody has the right to knowingly transmit HIV or knowingly expose another person ÔÇô partner, spouse or child, to possible HIV infection”.
According to the press release, “this statement wrongly and discriminately suggests that women are willfully transmitting HIV to their partners and children.”
A BONELA fact finding mission conducted earlier this year found that women who know their HIV positive status before they become pregnant have difficulty accessing family planning programmes and face discrimination from many healthcare providers.
“ In order to reduce the risk of HIV transmission, all women- not only those who do not know their HIV status before getting pregnant ÔÇô should have access to PMTCT services in a supportive setting,” says Christine Stegling, Director of Botswana network of Ethics, Law and HIV|AIDS. “A woman’s right to bear children should not be violated because she tests positive to HIV. Instead, Botswana should take the lead in ensuring an environment that assists women’s access to information and services to allow them to make informed and healthy choices for themselves and their children.”
The minister’s remarks are also of concern because they do not reflect the reality that many HIV positive women are not necessarily making the choice to get pregnant.
“Research has shown that in relationships, women do not have the power to negotiate safe sex. The question is, therefore, where these HIV positive women all of a sudden get the power to negotiate safer sex?” asks Grace Sedio, of Bomme Isago. “Putting the blame on women for the spread of HIV \AIDS is not part of the solution. The solution lies in us as citizens of Botswana, men and women, HIV positive and HIV negative, NGOs and government working together and not pointing fingers at one another”, she added .
BONELA is a Gaborone based non governmental organization working on ethical, legal and human rights dimensions of the HIV\AIDS pandemic in Botswana. BONELA is involved in research, training, advocacy, legal assistance and public education. Established last year, Bomme Isago Association is a growing network which boasts more than 50 members around Botswana.