Local organisations disappointed by Health Minister’s World AIDS Day comments about women living with HIV/AIDS

GABORONE—Two HIV/AIDS organisations in Botswana are concerned about some of the comments made by Honourable Minister Sheila Tlou in her World AIDS Day speech in Tsabong.

At the 1 December public event, Minister Tlou said that HIV-positive women who fall pregnant are a “challenge” to zero HIV transmission.

The Botswana Network on Ethics, Law and HIV/AIDS (BONELA) and Bomme Isago, a network of women living with HIV/AIDS, agreed with the Minister when she said in her address, “the position of Government is that every citizen has the right to have children.”

However, they were disturbed by the comment that followed: “Nobody has the right to knowingly transmit HIV or knowingly expose another person—partner, spouse or child—to possible HIV infection.” This statement wrongly and discriminatorily 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 get 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—should have access to PMTCT services in a supportive setting,” says Christine Stegling, Director of the Botswana Network on Ethics, Law and HIV/AIDS. “A woman’s right to bear children should not be violated just because she tests positive for 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 power to negotiate safe sex. The question is therefore, where do these HIV-positive women all of a sudden get 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 to work together and not to point fingers at one another,” she adds.