Thuthukile Mbatha, Spotlight
Uganda has about 1.4 million people living with HIV, with women – and young
women especially – disproportionately affected. According to AVERT, an HIV education organisation, Uganda sees about 52 000 new HIV infections per year.
Young HIV activist Shakira Namwanje (24) has been living with HIV since a very young age, and has become an outspoken and energetic voice in her country. “At school, children used to say I was HIV positive because I was thin; that used to get to me, but I didn’t know that what they were saying was true,” says Shakira.
Shakira was raped at the age of eight, and contracted HIV – not understanding what it was.
The rape happened during the school holidays. Shakira’s mom had left Shakira with her uncle, because she had no-one else to look after her while she was at work. “My mother had us at a very young age; both my parents had to work, so they used to send us to different relatives during the holidays, because there was no-one to look after us during the day,” says Shakira.
Shakira enjoyed spending time with her uncle and his wife, who had just given birth to a son. During the holidays, her uncle and his wife had a huge fight, which resulted in the wife moving out of the house and leaving Shakira and the son behind.
Shakira was comfortable staying with her uncle, who was still young, and used to bring them food during lunch and dinner at night. “My uncle used to own a cinema, where people from the community used to pay to watch movies or soccer. A number of his friends used to come to watch television programmes, so I used to call them my uncles as well,” she adds.
One afternoon her uncle had other commitments, and could not bring the food. He asked one of his friends to deliver food to the children. That was the day Shakira was raped; and she remembers it as the day her innocence and peace were ripped away from her.
Her uncle’s friend called Shakira in to the house, under the guise of helping him search for a parcel that her uncle had asked him to take. Shakira followed him into the house, where he raped her. “He told me to go and wash my clothes, which were covered in blood, and to never tell anyone about what had happened, otherwise he would kill me,” she says, with so much sadness and pain in her voice as she relives the experience. The man told her he would kill her should she utter a word to anyone.
When her uncle returned home, he found Shakira ill and feverish. Shakira was taken to hospital for malaria tests, which came back negative. Her condition worsened, and her uncle decided to take her back to her mother. Shakira’s mother also took her to the doctors, who also could not find anything wrong with her. Shakira suffered in silence. “I used to have nightmares every day following the incident,” she adds. She says the words and memory of her rapist haunted her every day.
Three years later, Shakira’s mother arrived at school to tell her that her uncle had died in a car accident. Shakira was sad, as she had loved her uncle. “But when I heard that my uncle was with his friend who raped me, and he had also died, I started laughing uncontrollably. I was sad that my uncle had died, but also relieved that the person who had stripped me of my freedom and happiness was no more,” says Shakira.
Shakira’s older sister told her that it is rude to laugh when someone has died. Shakira then confided in her sister the secret that she had kept for years, and which had led to her health deteriorating. Her sister told her mother, and she was taken to hospital for an HIV test. She was HIV-positive.
“Suddenly I was taking treatment every day, and I did not even know what for,” she says. Her mother did not take it well. “My mother was advised to take me to a children’s counsellor who works with young children living with HIV. For so long she refused, but eventually she introduced me to Madame Ahseah, a counsellor,” Shakira says. Her mother realised that she could not keep this information away from Shakira as she was growing up, and she became more inquisitive about the treatment that she had to take even when she was feeling well.
“After graduating, I decided to disclose my status to more people, with the hope of changing other young girls’ lives,” says Shakira. She used a community radio station as a platform to disclose what had happened to her as a child, and that she had contracted HIV through rape. She then joined the ‘Because I am a girl’ campaign.
This campaign creates awareness about sexual violence, and offers psychosocial support to young girls who have been victims of rape. They visit different schools to talk to both girls and boys, and encourage boys to respect girls and value them as their sisters. The campaign has touched a number of young girls who have had a similar experience to Shakira’s.
The ‘Because I am a girl’ campaign is an international programme that is run in over 51 countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas. It looks at various issues that affect girls by virtue of being born female and being young. The campaign looks at issues of child marriage, teenage pregnancy and sexual violence, among others.
Shakira’s campaign is targeting an area called Kalangala in Uganda, a fishing
town that has been in the news in Uganda because of an increase in rape cases. It is alleged that there could be more unreported rape cases in the area.
“I have been sharing my story with these young girls, and that has encouraged them to open up to me about what they are going through in their homes. I have assisted many young girls with getting counselling and sexual health services, and with opening criminal cases against the perpetrators,” says Shakira.
Shakira has not been in many relationships, because her mother was very protective of her following the incident. “I had a boyfriend in university who left me, and to this day I do not know why,” she says. “I never had a chance to disclose my status to him,” she adds.
For most people, finding out that you are HIV-positive is not an easy thing to accept. This is fuelled by the stigma. “The first person that I disclosed to was my best friend, who has been very supportive, and to date is still my rock.”
Shakira does not let her HIV status prevent her from living an active and positive life. “I enjoy sightseeing and touring, swimming, going out with friends, singing; and reading is my favourite. I am actually writing a book about my life,” she says. She is also part of a band called Stigmaless, a group of young people living with HIV. “We sing about HIV prevention, treatment drug resistance, and so on.”
Her message to other young people living with HIV is: “HIV is in you, but it’s not who you are – you can be whoever and whatever you want to be. Taking it one day at a time.”