Vimbai was a 10 year old girl whose life changed forever too early. Vimbai lived with her widowed mum and siblings at their grandparents’ house which they shared with their uncle. Life was normal, her mum used to work extra hard for long hours to make ends meet. She was a cheerful little girl, a delight to those who knew her. Her world changed when one day her uncle raped her. She didn’t know it was rape, she didn’t tell anyone but her mother noticed that she had become withdrawn and she questioned her and found out what had happened. Torn and confused her mum didn’t know what to do she told the family elders: after all her husband was gone so it was the right thing to do, she was told that ihuku yadya mazai ayo (a hen which has destroyed its own eggs). She wanted to report the matter to the police but she was told if she reported then she should leave the family home. She chose silence because of her desperation but 4 years later she regretted her decision when Vimbai got sick. Doctors confirmed she was HIV positive. Vimbai died at age 21 from renal failure.
Should young ladies like Vimbai continue to die when they did nothing absolutely wrong? Is there nothing that can be done to ensure they have a chance to live?
Ten years ago I was unaware what could be done, as I imagine most people are. It used to bother me that a woman could be raped and have no means to prevent HIV. For those of us in sub-Saharan Africa we truly know it is not an unfounded tale with the high prevalence of HIV in the region. I was glad to learn that all hope is not lost for rape victims like Vimbai; there is Post exposure prophylaxis (PEP).
SAFAIDS defines PEP as a short-term antiretroviral treatment to reduce the likelihood of HIV infection after exposure either occupationally or through sexual intercourse. The aim of PEP is to allow a person’s immune system a chance to provide protection against the virus and to prevent HIV from becoming established in someone’s body. For it to work, it has to be taken within 72 hours of exposure to HIV. Left any longer and it is thought that the effectiveness of the treatment is severely diminished. The advantages of getting immediate medical attention are the administering of PEP which is preceded by an HIV test and semen is drained to prevent pregnancy and this is essential for rape victims.
Rape is often stigmatised and misunderstood in our societies and in most cases the victim is re-victimised from insensitive police officers, unsympathetic family members and a discriminatory society. Victims in Zimbabwe would rather not say; after all what benefit is there in reporting rape?
In the focus group discussions RAU held recently I was dumbfounded when I discovered that most women do not know about PEP and for those who knew were not sure about its availability. In 2009 UNICEF reported that there was 42% increase in the cases of child rape in Zimbabwe. Girl Child Network (GCN) estimates that at least 6000 girls are raped annually in Zimbabwe. This is just counting the reported cases; I wonder how many more we do not know?
Why do women not know about it, why is the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare not talking about it? Why are little girls and boys not being educated on it in schools, after all it will save many lives. We have seen the power of a government campaign when they want to be pro- active, you just have to look at the bill boards all over Zimbabwe and listen to the radio. Yes I dare talk about male circumcision, a massive campaign and we all must admit, we got the message loud and clear, the adverts said it all. My question is why are we not doing the same with PEP?
Women are the primary caregivers of HIV/AIDS and also the majority of rape victims so why do they not know about PEP? We took a stand to reduce the transmission of HIV to men by male circumcision why are we not doing the same for women? Women victims of rape matter too and they should be protected. They are our mothers, sisters and neighbours.
PEP can be the solution we need for women reporting cases of rape which are being viewed as family issues. Why on earth should we protect rapists by remaining silent and kill our children (the victims). Is this our understanding of ‘family loyalty’?
Children, like Vimbai ought to be heard. According to the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare PEP is only available at district hospitals but some CSOs report that it is not always available in these hospitals. To the women in rural areas this is so disheartening especially when time is of the essence with PEP. Even if it is available in the district hospitals the distance that most people have to travel to get to these hospitals is unrealistic for rape victims especially.
PEP has to be readily available to everyone in Zimbabwe within their proximity. Most importantly PEP has to be known by all so that they make informed decisions when they need it the most. We must address this knowledge gap in Zimbabwe.
To the Minister of Health; we are losing too many lives to HIV/AIDS when we have a solution right under our noses. It is fact that PEP makes a difference and we ought to make it known, shout it on the roof tops if we have to, but even if our voices are not heard we owe it to Vimbai and others like her to stand up and never give up so that their deaths are not forgotten. They are a tragedy yes, but they should prompt us to act.