AN HIV diagnosis is tough enough for most Jamaicans, but it is an even harder pill to swallow when teenaged mothers infected.
Many of these young girls are unemployed high school dropouts — some with two or three children — who gave up on life after being diagnosed with the disease.
The group of HIV-positive young women rap with entertainer Sheldon Shepherd, patron of Eve for Life, and Joy Crawford during a recent session at the organisation’s offices in Kingston. (Photo: Ingrid Brown)
But through the Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Eve for Life, about 15 such young women have been empowered to retake control of their lives and to build a future for themselves and their children.
The young women, who once viewed their diagnosis as a death sentence, have learnt how to overcome the emotional and physical signs usually associated with the disease.
One such young woman, a 21-year-old mother of a one-year-old and an eight-year-old, dropped out of school when she got pregnant at 14.
Grappling with the pressures of being a teen mother, she also struggled with the knowledge that her sexually abusive father might have been the one who got her pregnant.
“I don’t really know, because I told my mother what happened but she never believed me, so I don’t say nothing to anybody else,” she said.
She was first diagnosed with HIV in 2003 during that pregnancy but refused to accept the diagnosis until further tests during the second pregnancy turned up positive.
That child’s father ended their relationship shortly after, claiming he wanted to father more children.
With limited education and no skills, the young woman said she gave up hope on life until she was invited to be a part of the Eve for Life programme.
“The things I have learnt in the nine months I have been coming here, they make me feel like someone again,” she said with a shy smile.
Waiting to die is no longer an option as she is now more convinced than ever that she has to make a future for her children.
“I am going to go back to school and not give up anymore on life, and so I tell myself I am not sick because I don’t want my son to have to grow up with any stepmother,” she told the Observer.
The story is somewhat similar for a 20-year-old who dropped out of school in the ninth grade when she became pregnant with her now four-year-old child.
The mother of two, who is again seven months pregnant, was diagnosed with HIV at age 15.
“At first, it was very difficult and I refused to believe it,” she said, adding that she had very little knowledge about the disease. “All I knew about HIV then was that people who have it, is dog them get it from”.
She said she was initially very angry with her baby’s 28-year-old father who infected her, but that has since changed as he and her mother are her only family support.
“He will push me to take care of myself and to take my medication, although he does not like to go to the clinic for himself,” she said.
But unlike those early years when she felt as if life was over, the young mother said while she can no longer pursue her dream of becoming a nurse she is more confident that she can take better charge of her life.
“I won’t be able to become a nurse again, but I will make something of myself because my mother still believes in me and so I know I will be able to do it,” she said, adding that she will be returning to school after the birth of her third child.
Another young HIV-positive mother of two children — aged three and six months — and also a high school dropout said she was deliberately infected with the disease by a 43-year-old soldier.
“Him tell me say is a girl give him and him give it back to somebody,” said the 22-year-old.
She said she never felt like living after being diagnosed a year ago.
“If it was not for this programme maybe me woulda chuck off ah Look Out hill long time ago,” she said. “I use to cry a lot, but me stop cry now and build up miself and find the strength to continue.”
All three women said they hope to get married one day and have more children, given that none of their children have so far been diagnosed with the disease.
Joy Crawford, project manager of Eve for Life, said the young girls who first came to the programme spiritually broken have now become advocates in some instances.
Explaining how the programme works, she said the participants, whose ages range from 17 to 22, are all high school dropouts with only 30 per cent of them being literate.
The 15 young women collectively have 21 children who are also part of the programme.
Crawford, who made a presentation about the programme at the XVIII International AIDS Conference held in Vienna, Austria, this July, said the young women are taught various life skills.
Pointing to the challenges they face in accessing public health services, Crawford said their rights are often violated with them being given negative information.
“They have very little knowledge about sexual reproductive rights, with some being told not to have children,” she explained, adding that some are even encouraged to undergo tubal ligation.
She said the programme works at giving them the necessary tools to protect themselves against reinfections and co-infections.
Some 47 per cent of the participants are from inner-city communities or poor socio-economic backgrounds and 87 per cent of them are unemployed.
She explained further that 87 per cent of them are in a visiting relationship with only 33 per cent of them having disclosed their status to their partners.
“All of the women are sexually active,” she said.
The young women, Crawford said, are carefully selected based on their desire to better their lives.
The participants are provided access to clinical psychologists and also receive referrals to other health care providers.
Crawford said there is need for more funding to keep the dream alive for these young women and to care for their babies.
Local entertainer Sheldon Shepherd of the group Nomadz and lead actor in the local movie Better Mus’ Come said he agreed to become patron and the face of the organisation because he was touched by the plight of the young girls and their children.
“It was touching to hear that some of the men knew their status and still spread it to some of these girls, and this saddens me because men need to protect the women,” he said.
His role, he said, will be to highlight the needs of these women.
“As a male hearing some of the female stories, it shows you can’t tell by looking, and this awareness needs to reach the public,” he said, shortly after rapping with the group.
He said the programme will benefit from part proceeds from all Nomadz events and he intends to use his influence within the music industry to get his colleagues to come on board.