KEEPING CHILDREN HEALTHY LIKE ASHLEY, IN ZAMBIA
Ashley* is a 16-year-old girl doing her 9th grade and is living with HIV. Stigma against people living with HIV remains high in Zambia. Ashley chose not to use her real name because her friends do not know that she has HIV. Receiving the news of being positive can be very devastating for any person but worse off for a child. There is need for a support system to help children to pass through this and for them to understand what being positive means. Antiretroviral treatment (ART) can keep children like Ashley healthy and help them lead a normal and fulfilling life.
Ashley’s story in her own words (quotes):
"I came to find out that I was HIV positive from my grandmother when I was 14-years-old. I remember the day that I found out about my status quiet vividly. I used to get sick from time to time and just assumed it was the normal way of growing up until on the 30th of June 2017 when I had terrible stomach pains. I asked my grandmother for pain killers but she was hesitating to give me but rather advised I go to the clinic for a check-up. When I kept on insisting why I should do that for a stomach ache she finally could not keep the secret anymore. She told me that I was HIV positive and that I had gotten it from my mother. I used to take ARVs though at that time I did not know what they were for because they told me the drugs were meant to stop my headaches. I felt extremely disappointed that they had kept this a secret from me. I confronted my dad about this though he initially denied it, he finally admitted it and that he himself was also positive. He just encouraged me to keep taking my drugs. I cried for three continuous days without eating anything.”
Save the Children through its local partner in eastern province has created spaces to provide support to children and other young people as Ashley narrates:
“A friend of mine invited me to join a youth group called Young, Happy and Safe which used to meet over the weekends at the local clinic. Although my friend did not know that I was positive because the group was not restricted to those who were positive. Later I was to find out that some of the members of the group were also living with HIV. Within the group I later made a friend whose mother works at the clinic and in whom I confided my secret with. She has been very supportive and also reminds me to take my ART drugs. I like being in this group because we learn a lot about sexual reproductive health and rights which covers issues like safe sex and preventing diseases. We also do different kinds of activities such as poetry, drama and sports as a way of keeping active.”
“There are only a few people who know my status and that is my father, grandmother, stepmother, my friend from the support group and the leader of the support group at Young Happy and Safe. I don’t want the others to know because they say bad things about people who are positive that they will die. I try to just ignore such things but when I hear them I sometimes think they are talking about me.”
“Every night at 20:00hrs I make sure that I take my ART drugs and when they start running low I come back to the clinic to get some more. They give me a date to come and get the next drugs. If by mistake I forget to take my drugs I often feel fatigue so I try my best not to forget. I stay with my grandmother who helps to remind me to take my drugs. My father lives in the same district as grandmother and I but he does not talk to me about HIV or taking my drugs because he often doesn’t even take his drugs that often. This is why I prefer to stay with my grandmother.”
“I want to complete my studies so I can become a doctor and help those who get sick and teach them about diseases, I look forward to the future. If my life was a movie I would call it Life of Ashley and it would be a movie where Ashley will be teaching others about HIV.”
Zambia and the rest of Southern Africa has a very high burden of disease related to sexual and reproductive health, including HIV. This high burden is influenced by gender norms and socio‐cultural practices. According to the Zambia Demographic Health Survey (2018), an average of 11% of women and men age 15-49 in Zambia are infected with HIV while HIV prevalence is higher among women than men (14.2% versus 7.5%). The HIV Knows No Borders project is a collaboration between the International Organization for Migration, the Wits School of Public Health and Save the Children. This project seeks to contribute to greater freedom of choice for children like Ashley by focusing on facilitating supply of and accessibility to responsive SRHR –HIV services. Through the local partners in the eastern province such as Young Happy and Safe, the project has set up information hubs and village Health Corners where children and other vulnerable groups can access information on SRHR.
* Name has been changed to protect the identity of the subject