The role of male partners in creating an AIDS-free generation
In honor of Father’s Day (June 15) the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF) spoke with Patrick Mkonto, a local HIV/AIDS activist in the Shurugwi district of Zimbabwe, about why it’s important for men to take an active role in creating a future where no child has AIDS.
Tell us about yourself and how you started working with the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF).
I am a school teacher in rural Shurugwi. My wife, Mildred, and I are beneficiaries of prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV (PMCT) services and we have a healthy 3-year-old daughter, Nokutenda, which means “to give thanks in Shona” – because we are so thankful to have had access to the treatment necessary to keep her HIV-free.
A few years ago, we were invited to attend a workshop in Gweru, Zimbabwe hosted by the Southern Africa HIV and AIDS Information Dissemination Service (SAfAIDS). My wife and I shared our personal journey of living with HIV during the meeting and afterward we were approached by staff from EGPAF, who asked us to get involved with its work in Zimbabwe. We’ve been engaged with EGPAF ever since.
Tell us about the work that you have been doing with EGPAF.
My wife and I have established a number of support groups in Shurugwi. In fact, our district in Zimbabwe has the largest number of HIV support groups in the country. When there are national competitions in HIV education, our district tends to win. In last year’s Mr. /Mrs. ARV competitions, the winners came from Shurugwi and we’re very proud of that.
In our support groups, we encourage each other to spread the message that it is safer to deliver a child at health facilities in our respective communities. We also encourage each other to adhere to HIV treatment. We work with organizations such as EGPAF and SAfAIDS to host workshops, radio shows, and advocacy events where we share our story and encourage other couples who are thinking of starting or expanding their families to get tested for HIV and, if they are positive, we let them know that it is possible to have an HIV-free baby.
Do you have a lot of male members in your support groups, if so how do you encourage them to support their partners in the program?
There is a general consensus that support groups are an activity for women only. Men rarely attend our support groups and they’re also less cooperative when it comes to these issues. I host radio shows and during some episodes, women call and say that their husbands are refusing to get tested for HIV even if the wife has tested positive. Yet they still insist on having children.
I always encourage men to accompany their partners for HIV testing before planning to have a baby. I tell them that it is possible to have an HIV-free child even if you are positive. Many people have listened to that advice and they are now proud parents of healthy children. They always thank us.
What do you think is the role of men in the fight against pediatric AIDS?
It is important for men to support their partners. Often, men do not divulge their HIV status and when they test positive, some men hide it from their wives. I think it is a man’s responsibility to support his wife, especially when they are living with HIV -- that is the only way this can work.
I found myself encouraging my wife when she wanted to quit her support group, I was able to rally behind her and I try to be strong for her. Male partners should appreciate that a woman is already playing a big part by bearing the pregnancy and be able to support her.
What message can you give to couples and your male counterparts on Father’s Day?
Go to a nearby clinic or hospital together and get tested for free. Take your anti-retroviral therapy (ART) drugs, following a definite timetable. Remember to practice safe sex. Never take chances.
Sithembile Siziba is an intern with EGPAF-Zimbabwe.