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Sickness, secrecy and precariousness: the triple punishment of HIV-positive African women

Ⓒ AFP – Philippe LOPEZ – | HIV positive women gather at the premises of the association Sol en Si de Bobigny, November 28, 2017

For them, HIV is more than a virus: a social death. Contaminated by a polygamous spouse or during a rape committed by smugglers, HIV-positive African women refugees in France raise their heads despite the triple punishment of the disease, “rejection” and precariousness.

“When I was told that I had AIDS, I wanted to throw myself out of the window and the caregivers caught me.” Catherine (first name changed) remembers in the slightest detail of this day of 2013, the room of the Paris suburb hospital where she had been consulted for strange pimples on the face.

“When you have this disease, everyone forsakes you, even your children.You are scared.AIDS, for us, is prostitution.It is said that it comes from women whereas it is men who are polygamous and contaminate us, “blows the 43-year-old Malian who” fled the war “.

Alone with two dependent children, she found a refuge, a “listening” and “hope” in the premises of the association Sol en Si of Bobigny (Seine-Saint-Denis), which supports nearly 200 families affected by the virus and has a nursery for 14 babies.

For more than 20 years, social workers and psychologists have helped these mothers, mostly alone and accommodated in a social hotel, to “re-project themselves into the future”. Through material aid – food bank, distribution of diapers and milk, participation in “Chancery” fees for the residence permits for “care” that these women can claim – and psychological and social support.

Ⓒ AFP – Philippe LOPEZ – | African HIV positive women gather at the premises of the association Sol en Si, November 28, 2017 in Bobigny

As they walk through the door, some are shaving the walls. No poster or flyer suggests that we welcome here, in the heart of the second French department most affected by the epidemic, HIV-positive people. “There is such a taboo … The question of secrecy is central.We have women who cut themselves off from all around, others who hide it from their companion and their children,” says Florence Buttin, the psychologist.

Ella, 34, carmine smile and wax turban on her head, explains “having made the choice to inform no one”. Young mother, she crosses the department several times a week “to share this weight”, she who, at home, hides the knife she uses, for fear of contaminating her relatives.

– “Show that you are not fucked” –

On the ground floor of the local, the living room is teeming with young women and young children. “The old”, as at home, laugh while warming a soup or a coffee, take care of babies “news”.

Among them, Fatou, 36, has twins of a few months and the broken look. She arrived clandestinely from Ivory Coast, via Libya, by sea. Alone, pregnant and contaminated. She will only say that the trip was “very hard”.

Ⓒ AFP – Philippe LOPEZ – | A woman with her child in the premises of the association Sol en Si, November 28, 2017 in Bobigny

Taibou, a young Guinean refugee, also seems to be apart. “At first, I could not admit, I just came for diapers and milk,” she says. HIV? “The gentleman who promised me the visa …”

“Women have recently arrived with complicated migratory routes, some of them have crossed whole countries alone, have been raped on boats, imprisoned, and others have been helped by men to get papers. “, their psychologist alarms.

Another concern is growing insecurity. “Fifteen years ago, there were a lot of cases of infected children: it has completely disappeared, from a medical point of view, it’s improved … But the precariousness has grown more than the disease, “says Hortense Ngaleu, a social worker.

Catherine started to make households. His dream? “Go back to Mali and set up an association to inform women, show that you can have children, that you are not screwed when you have HIV”. She could then “tell” her family. Because she is now convinced: “in the + chat +, we can change things”.

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