In Zambia women are fighting gender and HIV discrimination

Read about one woman's determination to change her community.

Violence and discrimination against women and girls is a problem of pandemic proportions, but in Zambia one woman is taking on the challenge to change her community.

Jamillar Katambo from Lusaka was widowed when her husband died of an AIDS-related illness. When Jamillar found out her HIV positive status a few years ago, she and a friend started running an orphanage with the support of the Muslim community where she lives.

She said: “I thought this was the right time to be open about my status but on the day it was revealed in the media, there were mixed reactions from my community. Within hours, two truckloads of youths were organised to evict me and my friend from the orphanage by throwing stones at us. They shouted abuse and threatened to beat us up for bringing shame to the community.”

Jamillar and her colleague locked themselves in the orphanage and they were only saved from the youths when two orphans sneaked out secretly and alerted the police.

Evicted from orphanage

Leaders in Jamillar’s Muslim community told Jamillar she could no longer care for the children because she might infect them with HIV. From that moment, the orphanage was closed and the children scattered. Jamillar also faced discrimination as she was not allowed to enter the mosque.

When Jamillar shared her story on a website she was contacted almost immediately by JASS, an organisation based in South Africa. JASS connected Jamillar and her colleague with the Zambian Non-Governmental Organisation Co-ordinating Council who helped them set up the Positive Moslem Women’s network in 2011.

Jamillar said: “We started engaging with Muslim men and women by conducting workshops on HIV infection and treatment at Mosques. But this was a very hard thing to do, some years back it was considered taboo to even mention the word HIV in their midst. At first it was a slow process with a lot of opposition. I had to convince the Imam, the spiritual leader, to agree and then he spoke to people and urged them to attend workshop.”

The taboo of condoms

The biggest challenge for Jamilla’s organisation right now is talking about the use of condoms, which is still taboo. The Islamic tradition allows a husband to marry up to four wives but it does not allow use of condoms. People believe sex within marriage is safe without a condom. Jamilla said: “In Islam, if you talk about condoms and HIV you are considered to be corrupting the minds of women. And people do not want to face the reality of thinking one of the partners might be unfaithful and so infect the others as well.”

The Positive Moslem Women Network has partnered with the Zambian Network of Religious Leaders Living with or affected by HIV and AIDS and the Zambia Prevention Initiative (a USAID program to fight stigma and discrimination) to engage young Muslim women to speak out and fight for their rights, including access to voluntary counselling and testing programmes.

The Network operates in Lusaka, Eastern and Southern provinces and so far has reached more than 3,050 people. It is undertaking research on HIV infections in health institutions and also conducts voluntary counselling and testing at Mosques during the Friday prayers – though it takes care to avoid talking about condoms.

Violence against women

At least one out of three women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime. In sub-Saharan Africa, gender inequity provides an environment where violence against women goes unabated. It is fuelled by conflict, poverty and socio-cultural practices that condone discrimination against women, and sexual violence has risen to unacceptable levels.

Gender based violence and HIV are inter-related when it means women have no say over their own bodies. Even though their partners may have many sexual relations, it is often impossible for women to negotiate safe sex through using condoms and a lot of women end up getting infected with HIV.

Jamilla is a woman who has stood her ground and is fighting for women’s rights no matter what it costs her. She is an inspiration and we need more women like her.

Read more stories about HIV and human rights