Having got to know of her HIV positive status at the age of 13, Langa (not her real name) from Bulawayo says she had to grapple with self-stigma, stigma within her family and then worse still in boarding school.
Given the rife stigma, compounded with lack of support, she defaulted, not once but twice.
“I got to know of my HIV status when I had just turned 13 and was preparing to go for boarding school.
“I developed herpes and that prompted that I go for HIV testing. My parents died when I was very young and was left under the care of my aunt who accompanied me for the tests,” recounted the 21 year old.
Although she had always heard talk that her parents had died due to Aids related illnesses, she somehow just had hope that she had miraculously evaded infection.
But the results from the tests broke her heart; she was HIV positive.
“To be honest the counselling and support I got was just not enough. I had so many unanswered questions, like why me?
“What had I done to deserve this? I had serious self-stigma, my family did not make it any easier.”
“I went to boarding school, hoped life would be better as I was going to an environment where no-one knew me.
“ Well life was not better in boarding school as I expected. I had to hide my medication in my school trunk so that no one saw them,” she added.
Langa recalled how pupils who were taking any medication were expected to declare to the boarding matron who would in turn keep the medicines for them.
“Those pupils for example, who asthma, ulcers and other conditions had told the boarding matron and so she kept their medication where they routinely went to take it from.”
“I could not tell the matron that I was HIV positive.
“ I was not ready, I didn’t trust her so I decided that I would rather keep my medication.”
“It was not easy, while I needed support and continuous counselling to understand my status, I had none of that.”
The now 21-year-old recounted how she first defaulted that same year she got into boarding school and got bed ridden as a result.
“I was only in form 1, had so many unanswered questions and I gave up on medication. I lost hope. I wanted to die.”
“I had to go back home where I was bedridden for over a month. I was removed from boarding school.”
“It was at that stage that I was introduced to the Community Adolescent Treatment Supporters better known as CATS.”
Langa says the support she got through CATS was overwhelming, it was at that stage that she got to meet her peers who were also living with HIV.
“That support as I got to relate with others who shared the same circumstances with me gave me a sense of belonging.”
“I was taught to fight self-stigma first before I could deal with other forms of stigma and discrimination,” she recounted.
She was to finish her Ordinary Level at a day school where she passed and proceeded to Advanced Level.
Langa is now in her first year at a local university.
Her life mirrors that of several adolescents who were born with HIV and continue to face a myriad of challenges that need interventions to save this population.
She also has the Ministry of Health and Child Care, Dreams initiative to thank for building resilience and determination in her.
“Because of Dreams, I can dream again,” she declared.
She’s now determined, resilient, empowered, Aids free, mentored & safe.
Dreams which stands for Determined, Resilient, Empowered, Aids-free, Mentored and Safe is an ambitious project that seeks to promote antiretroviral treatment adherence while reducing HIV among adolescent girls and young women in 10 sub-Saharan African countries.
The Pepfar and Global Fund funded initiative already running in the country’ s nine high HIV burdened districts, empowers young women through the provision of a comprehensive care package including entrepreneurship, mentoring, life and employability skills.
The initiative also seeks to empower young women with vocational skills trainings, financial literacy, sexual and reproductive education, and protection services from gender based violence while reducing their vulnerability.
Dreams coordinator with National Aids Council, Masimba Nyamucheta said the Dreams initiative are some of the interventions that the country have come up with to address challenges being faced by young women like Langa.
“Young people are lagging behind in the treatment cascade especially on viral suppression.”
“Issues of adherence remain critical among this group as they are going through a change in physical development.”
“It is under these premises that initiatives like CATS were developed. Under CATS, we have peers that are living with HIV who have gone through a transformative counselling phase.”
“We now use these as change agents in influencing other young people who were born and are living with HIV, ” he said.
Masimba said cases of default among adolescents is a cause of concern and Zimbabwe can only ignore this at its own peril.
Head of Aids and TB in the Ministry of Health and Child Care, Dr Owen Mugurungi said since the introduction of the Dreams initiative in 2016, it had helped build resilience and empower girls so as to reduce their vulnerability.
“We want to see an Aids free generation where those adolescents who were born with HIV can be Aids free as we promote adherence.
“We are concerned about HIV and Aids as we have more than 40 000 Zimbabweans getting infected every year. We know that more than half of those infections are coming among young people.
“Of those that are getting infected, more than two out of three are girls and young women hence it is against this background that Dreams initiative is premised,” said Dr Mugurungi.
He argued that issues around education, empowerment and resilience can help protect girls from HIV.
“We need Aids mentored, resilient and empowered women who can make a difference in our country.
“Clear policies can also help reduce vulnerability among young girls.”
As Mugurungi envisages an Aids free Zimbabwe by 2030, Langa has a renewed vigour to reconfigure her life.