Courage and Commitment: Ending Pediatric AIDS Depends Upon Empowered Women

By Chip Lyons | March 4, 2014

Manga Devi Tharangini looks at her jumping, laughing eight-year-old daughter, Keshava, and smiles at her uncontainable joy.

Ann Suma/EGPAF-India

This March, our series, “Courage and Commitment,” will profile female scientists, health workers, and activists who are supporting our mission to end pediatric AIDS. Stay tuned!

Manga is a young widow living and working in Miyagluda, a town in central India. When she was in her eighth month of pregnancy, Manga discovered that she was HIV-positive. She contracted the virus from her husband, who didn't disclose his HIV-positive status to her.

Fortunately, Manga was able to enroll in antiretroviral therapy (ART) at the nearby Jyothi Hospital. Her daughter, Keshava, was born HIV-free and remains healthy. Manga has managed to keep the virus at bay through continued ART and the counseling that she receives from Solidarity and Action Against the HIV Infection in India (SAATHII), which is supported by the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF).

Manga’s husband eventually died from AIDS. Unfortunately, Manga’s family had sold their house to provide a dowry and now the family is nearly destitute. Raising her daughter alone, Manga carefully guards her HIV-positive status because of the stigma against those living with HIV.

“I don’t want to get married again,” says Manga. “I want to build up my career. I want to live with my baby and to use all my opportunities.”

Manga’s story is representative of so many women. Her experience is apt during Women’s History month when we focus on the many roles that women play—in the family and in the broader community.

Globally, 54 percent of all adults living with HIV are women, according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). This is largely because women are at a greater risk than men of being infected with a sexually transmitted disease. In low-resource countries, the percentage of women living with HIV increases substantially. In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, 72 percent of HIV-positive young people (ages 15-24) are women. Thus, the very people bringing life into the world are those most vulnerable to HIV. Of course, this goes to the very heart of our organization, which was founded by a mother who unknowingly contracted HIV and passed the virus to her children.

Fortunately, ART has provided hope to women living with HIV. Just as Manga’s daughter was born without HIV, nearly all children can be born without the virus if HIV-positive mothers have access to an antiretroviral regimen and adhere to it. ART allows for safer breastfeeding and gives mothers (and fathers) the chance to stay healthy to raise their children.

Women’s rights play an important role in eliminating AIDS. EGPAF was founded by three women who understood their right to fight for the health of children. They had the right to become educated about the virus. They had the right to speak to policy makers and demand research about and treatment for pediatric AIDS. Their actions led to the dramatic decrease in pediatric AIDS in the United States and Europe.

We carry on the legacy of our founders, Elizabeth Glaser, Susie Zeegen, and Susan DeLaurentis, in the research and treatment that we support. But we also carry on that legacy in our work to empower women—acknowledging their rights and keeping them central to the fight to achieve an AIDS-free generation. History shows that when women have the means to receive proper health care, pediatric AIDS can be virtually eliminated.

Manga could not prevent being infected with HIV, but ART did prevent her from transmitting the virus to her daughter. Now Manga works in an Internet café and plans a better career for herself and greater opportunities for Keshava. Her hope is that Keshava will have greater control over her own life and will never face the prospect of living with HIV.

Access to treatment has improved dramatically during the last five years, but there is still much further to go. Seven hundred children continue to be born with HIV each day. Elizabeth Glaser’s promise to her child is our promise to the children of the world. We will do what it takes until no child has AIDS.

It all begins with ensuring that every woman has access to the health services that she needs.

Want more stories of empowered women making change around the world? Livestream the U.S. Department of State's 2014 International Women of Courage Award Ceremony today at 11:30 EST, or follow EGPAF's #IWOC coverage on Twitter for the latest updates.