In Burkina Faso, one women challenges stigma and educates mothers on how to prevent transmitting HIV to their children.
Rachel is a HIV-positive mother whose goal it is to educate pregnant women in Burkina Faso so that they will not pass on the virus to their children.
Her activities take place around the clinics of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, where she found the help of Agnes, a nurse who teaches pregnant women the protocol of HIV prevention.
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One of the main obstacles in Rachel’s journey is to overcome the problem of social exclusion for these HIV-positive women.
In this culture, the HIV question is considered by many to be a woman’s problem. They need to make sure that their babies will not be infected, but by doing the HIV test they worry that their community will learn about their illness and eventually ostracise them.
Rachel realises that raising awareness in the clinics of the capital is no longer enough. She has to extend her fight to the remote area in the outskirts of Ouagadougou where the level of education is much lower and therefore the women face a higher level of discrimination.
By Gianpaolo Bigoli and Mariachiara Illica Magrini
The first time we heard about Rachel, we were in the Neonatology Department of Saint Camille Hospital in Ouagadougou, working on a video project on the progress made on motherhood in Burkina Faso.
We were focusing on women who, day after day, were taking part in a series of silent little revolutions to improve their social situations.
One day an Italian doctor approached us. He knew what we were looking for, and he told us that we “just had to meet Rachel”.
Rachel was making an invaluable, unexpected contribution to the hospital’s programme for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV during pregnancy.
We met Rachel that very afternoon and found a strong, pragmatic woman; full of resolve, yet at the same time ironic and sweet-natured.
She was pregnant with her second child, Ibrahim. She didn’t yet know if her baby was going to be born free from HIV, but she was determined to follow the prevention protocol, and had faith in the future.
Similarly, she did nothing to hide the fact she was HIV-positive; she was determined to combat any form of stigma by setting an example herself.
We were profoundly struck and motivated by her determination to change things, and we decided we would tell the story of Rachel and those women who, like her, never give up – not even in the face of the seemingly impossible.
Ibrahim was born a few months later, healthy and with no trace of the virus. Healthy, full of life and determined, just like his mother, Ibrahim symbolises the hope of a new African generation that can now imagine and dream of a different future; a future free from the nightmare of Aids/HIV.
Right from our first meeting, Rachel understood our intentions, and was willing to help, remaining faithful to her strength, her independence, and her role as a woman and mother.
She made this clear to us every day, as she accompanied us deeper and deeper into the world of HIV-positive women, who – in Burkina Faso and in a number of countries in West Africa – end up being the first to fall victim to discrimination, and risk being thrown out, excluded and repudiated by their own families.
Rachel showed us the importance of educating these women towards a new awareness. She then showed us how she herself was able to hold her head high when, even with minor, everyday gestures, she showed her readiness to lay claim to her right to make her own choices.
This was demonstrated by her fondness of wigs. Burkinabe women wear wigs, which they often change several times during the same week. We asked Rachel if she could avoid changing wigs while we were filming, so as not to make it difficult for viewers to recognise her. She said no. She had the right to dress as she pleased, and we would have to accept that. So we did.
We met many women, including Agnes and Alima, who allowed us to get a closer look at Burkinabe culture and its fascinating traditions linked to birth and motherhood.
Others showed us their loneliness and their fear of stigma. We were not always able to collect their stories, because their husbands often prevented them from talking about themselves.
So behind this film is a desire to use Rachel’s story to illustrate the key role played by women in defending life and developing civil rights. Hence the decision to turn our eyes to Africa, the place where, more than anywhere else, the commitment of women often shapes emblematic actions and experiences.
Rachel’s decisions in defence of life have a universal value, and we believe they carry a message of hope, as well as a strong driving force to spur on those battling for women’s rights all over the world.
The two women behind Burkina Faso’s revolution against HIV
“Some revolutions happen because of loud screams and great actions. Others go forward in a slow silence. They are revolutions that need time and love. And in Africa, these revolutions belong to the women because they know the value of life and are ready to defend it.”
Rachel, 46, is a mother of two based in Ouagadougou where she carries out voluntary activities to educate HIV-positive women about preventing the transmission of the virus onto their children.
In 1992 she discovered that she had HIV. Two years later, she lost her first husband and daughter to AIDS was forced to rebuild her life from scratch. Despite not having any money and facing stigma, Rachel found a job and studied to become a midwife. She later remarried and in 2005 gave birth to a child without passing on the virus thanks to PTME (Prevention of Transmission of HIV from Mother to Child).
The joy of giving birth to a healthy child inspired her to start a movement to educate other women in the same situation. Her goal is to ensure pregnant women get tested for HIV, and if they test positive, she helps them begin the PTME programme, whist providing them with moral support.
“Agnes is a fighter,” according to Rachel. The nurse, widow and mother of five children, supported Rachel with the PTME programme throughout two pregnancies, which is how the two women got to know one other. They began working together to inform future mothers about the importance of HIV testing and prevention.
Agnes studied in Italy and then returned home to Burkina Faso to work as a nurse practitioner at one of the first neonatology wards of the country. She has worked at the Saint Camille Hospital in Ouagadougou for 39 years.
In 2000, the Burkina Faso government chose the hospital to pilot the PTME programme to prevent mother-child HIV transmission during pregnancy. This programme was launched jointly with the World Health Organisation and was also supported by the Italian Government.
When it launched, Agnes was the head nurse at the neonatology ward and she immediately played a key role mediating between pregnant women, or new mothers, and the hospital’s PTME team.
Now she trains the staff and, passionate about what she does, she continues working although she has already reached the age of retirement. Her long experience and gentle nature have earned her the nickname Iaba or grandmother among the staff and patients.