Black History Month and HIV
By Rebecca Mbewe
October marks Black History Month in the UK - that time of the year when conversations bring to the fore issues that affect mainly people of colour (or ‘Diversity Gold dust’ – a term coined by a long term friend of mine and one that I have really come to love). This is also a time that offers everyone the opportunity to share, celebrate and understand the impact of black heritage and culture in our society. As we all know, this has many intersections. The focus over the last couple of years has been on race, such as the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement or Sexual Reproductive and Health Rights (SRHR) like the ‘Me Too’ movement, all very powerful and important causes. As a black migrant woman from Africa, I would like to delve a little deeper into the conversations around sexual health and perhaps what this means to black women like me living in the UK. My focus for this piece is HIV! As someone who has lived experience of HIV for 25 years, I believe I have the experience and knowledge, of myself and, that of others I have supported, to highlight the challenges but also acknowledge and celebrate the achievements of women within the context of HIV.
Many of us will have come across research that tells us that black people are more likely to face inequalities regardless of one’s situation. Now, compound that with being a migrant woman living with HIV. This kind of situation presents with it so many challenges – culture, getting to grips with a new way of living, navigating the health system and doing all that with English as a second language. You’d think all the odds are stacked against us – and most often they are!!! I can tell you without a doubt, we haven’t even scratched the surface! Add a dose of intimate partner violence which studies show increases after an HIV diagnosis or splash of mental health! My attempt at being witty fails miserably because these are some of the very serious issues that impact on the lives of black women living with HIV every single day! However, as dismal as this picture looks, I would like to focus on the positives – to say the R E S I L I E N C E of these women is soooo remarkable is a gross understatement. I for one can testify that if it were not for women before me, who provided me with the much-needed peer support, I most certainly would not be where I am today. I would not have had the courage (even though it was many moons ago now) to even consider having a child after my diagnosis! A sero-different relationship would be an impossibility, but I am in one right now and very happy! These black women have nurtured me, guided me, supported me, held me and cried with me in my most difficult moments through my HIV journey. Mostly though, they have danced with me – we have celebrated advances in treatment, new births where some of us gave up hope – now even seeing grandchildren being born. THIS is what I would like to celebrate in Black History Month. In tandem, I would like everyone, all of us in our glorious diversity, to join me on this journey of HIV that many of us navigate throughout our daily lives by:
- Raising awareness and educating yourself and others about HIV and the impact on Black communities – it is an issue that impacts us all in one way or another.
- Amplifying the voices, experiences and journeys of women (people) living with HIV - appreciating and celebrating their tenacity and resilience through the spirit of togetherness and importance of community support and solidarity - our work is not yet done.
- Continuing to advocate for and ensuring HIV, and any strategies, remain at the forefront - there is a need to hear the voices of those left behind.
- Continuing the work to destigmatise HIV because failure to do so will keep women from not being able to share their stories with their own families, whom they need support from the most. We will continue to have women living in poverty and facing domestic violence as they still rely on partners for financial support – only we can change this trajectory.
It is my hope that in this small but powerful way, we can all add meaningfully to why we celebrate Black History Month.
Director, 4M Mentor Mother’s Network CIC Associate, Salamander Trust
Rebecca is a mentor, speaker and trainer who has long-standing experience of working within the HIV sector. As well as a member of the UK Community Advisory Board who sits on British HIV Association Audit & Standards subcommittee, she is also an Associate of the Salamander Trust (4M Project). She is co-director of 4M Mentor Mothers Network CIC (4M Network CIC) which aims to protect, promote and enhance the health and rights of people marginalised by societies worldwide as a result of their gender, HIV status or sexual and reproductive health issues. Rebecca is passionate about these women’s issues and spends much of her time advocating and supporting other women. She holds a BSc in Psychology and an MBA in Healthcare. Rebecca has lived experience of HIV of 25 years. She is a mother to two young men.