She married in 1996 aged 18, her husband was 22. During her first pregnancy Mary, whose husband is member of the Apostolic Faith, was not allowed to register at the antenatal clinic.
She had her first two children at home under the care of church midwives. She had no access to the family income despite spending all her time watering, weeding and selling vegetables from their garden.
A few years later Mary fell pregnant with twins, started experiencing serious back pains and would sneak to the clinic to seek medical help as her husband did not approve.
As required for all pregnant mothers, she was counseled and tested for HIV. She tested positive and told her husband who was furious as to how she knew of her status. He also suggested that she used holy water from their church and refused to go for testing.
“I would sneak out of the house and go to the clinic and was put on treatment. I hid my medication in a hole under a tree in our field. My husband denied me access to health services and he died early this year,” said Mary.
She is one of the many women, religious and non religious, who are denied access to health services, including HIV and Aids treatment, and contraceptives.
In most patriarchal communities boys and men are socialised to believe that they hold the key to all activities that women partake, accessing health services included.
While men are believed to be the key decision makers in all aspects of society and have the powers to protect their partners, they lack health seeking behaviours. Their unwillingness to access social services negatively affects their spouses.
Some married women face challenges in seeking treatment such as enrolling on Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) programmes because their husbands forbid them.
With HIV and Aids being the leading cause of death among mothers and infants accounting for over 27 percent of all deaths (NAC) there is need to empower women so that they have access to health services.
Coverage of PMTCT prophylaxis among HIV positive pregnant women at 59 percent remains sub-optimal. In general, there is lack of knowledge and literacy on HIV and health issues.
Fear of disclosure and discrimination as result of shame associated with HIV is still huge.
But what is it which is putting women and girls more at risk of infection? Social and cultural practices and beliefs such as gender roles in the homes, power dynamics in sexual relations, poverty and dependence on men for money, biological make up and lack of knowledge of their own body as well as religious beliefs play an important role in women’s vulnerability towards HIV and Aids.
Cultural practices such as early marriages and polygamy play a bigger role in the denial of access to health services for women. Women are at the receiving end of these practices as they lack power to voice their concerns and their empowerment to sustain their choices.
The Zimbabwe Council of Churches believes the church haas a responsibility in this issue and is involved in training different levels of church leaders to facilitate the removal of stigma and to make the church an inclusive home and place of refuge.
Changing social and cultural practices demand a collective effort by all stakeholders including the government civil society, the Church and the media. But most importantly, men need to change their health seeking behavior as it has a direct impact on their female partners’ health. Thus, it is important to note that just as health is a basic human right, it is every woman’s human right too.Post published in: News