Finding the words to talk about HIV

Burkinabe songstress Pyane Djire knows that the power of a song is in the story that it tells and as an HIV-positive woman, she is using her music to tell women like herself that they don’t need to suffer in silence.

“To get people to change their behaviour you need the right words. I sing about my hopes and I think it bears fruit,” she said. “When you sing it’s a way of saying that you have a responsibility to society, and as a mother to put the brakes on this pandemic that concerns the whole world.”

Djire, 33, discovered she was infected with HIV in 1999 while pregnant with her son. Part of her prenatal medical care included an HIV test. After learning her status, she was able to take part in a Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission (PMTCT)  programme and her son, who is now seven, was born HIV negative.

There is a 15 to 30 percent risk of an HIV-positive mother passing the virus on to her child, either while the baby is in the womb, during delivery or post-natally through breastfeeding. PMTCT prevention programmes provide women with testing, counselling and anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) that can reduce the risk of transmission by 50 percent.

The healthy birth of her child motivated Djire to get the message out to other HIV-positive women in Burkina Faso that their condition shouldn’t stop them from living their lives to their full potential.

“I drew on my own experience from when I had my son to tell parents that if you are tested in time, even if you are HIV positive, you can still give birth to an HIV-negative baby. This gives people hope to live better and adopt safer behaviour, which in turn helps fight the disease,” she said. “It’s a blessing to learn your condition and everyone can do it by being tested.”

Djire, who began to sing professionally in 1996, decided to channel her musical talent into creating songs that inspire women to care for themselves and their unborn children, and advocate for their needs.

“She is a model for women. Not only does she encourage HIV testing, but her vision for those with AIDS, especially women, is positive. She is addressing the stigmatisation [linked] to the disease, showing that it is no longer fatal,” said Sonia Zaongho, a Burkinabe student.

In 2006, Djire received a special health award given out annually by the national Burkinabe television network for a music video that campaigns for more PMTCT programmes in the country.

“When people look up to you, for example young mothers who place their hope in you, you have to be available and provide them with the necessary minimum. Sometimes it’s not easy and I have to knock on [all] doors to help them,” she said.

In Burkina Faso, where the HIV prevalence rate is estimated at two percent, PMTCT prevention programmes only got off the ground in 2002 with three pilot sites. Today, government statistics indicate that 45 out of 55 health districts have programmes in place, and 80 percent of pregnant women receive ARVs, compared to 70 percent in 2005.

To help further her efforts in the fight against AIDS, Djire founded the Association of Artists and Artisans Against AIDS and Narcotics in 2004 and is the organisation’s president.

“Many women who want children and need information relating to HIV/AIDS, or who are already positive but want to conceive, confide in me through the association,” she said. “The fact that revealing my status and sharing my experience with other women has led mothers to ensure that the virus is not passed on to their babies is a pleasure.”

The group now counts 52 women and 30 men and since its inception has provided assistance to 11 HIV-positive pregnant women. Nine of the women learned of their status in time to benefit from ARV treatment and gave birth to HIV-negative babies.

Each year, the organisation must pull together at least US$22,000 to provide support to its members and fund school and feeding programmes for about 100 children infected with HIV or directly touched by the disease.

Djire, though, is indefatigable and now she is promoting awareness for safe breastfeeding for HIV-positive mothers. Risk of transmission from mother to child is between 30 and 45 percent when breastfeeding is prolonged and the World Health Organisation currently recommends that HIV-positive mothers use breast milk substitutes, and when this is not possible to not breastfeed beyond six months.

“It’s not easy to keep a mother form breastfeeding. It costs less and it allows a real bonding to take place between mother and child,” said Djire. “There is a strong chance that she will not be able to resist giving her best to her child. Psychologically, it is torture, but we want to protect them [women and their children] so we have discussions with husbands and the family.”

Getting husbands on board to support their HIV-positive wives is not always easy. Djire’s husband, who is also HIV-positive, has stood by his wife in her activism, but at least half of the HIV-positive people that Djire has met said they were rejected by their husbands or abandoned by their in-laws when their husbands passed away.

For Djire these kinds of situations make it all the more imperative to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and the rights of women.

“You have to fight and have self-confidence no matter what situation you find yourself in,” she said. “Being HIV-positive shouldn’t put an end to your projects - that’s the message that I am sending.”

And it is a message that is reaching her fans.

“I’m glad she is denouncing [the fact] that it is women who are the most exposed [to the risk of infection]. Despite her status, she is conveying the image of a woman who is fighting instead of sitting back and waiting for things to be handed to her,” said Beatrice Kayilou, an administrative secretary in the capital Ouagadougou.

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