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By Dorcas Ilunga-Chileshe  

 FEW years ago, HIV positive women were strongly advised not to risk getting pregnant for fear of infecting the unborn baby with the virus.

The story is different today. The availability of special drugs that can successfully prevent HIV positive women from infecting their unborn babies has brought a ray of hope in giving birth to a generation free of HIV/AIDS in Africa.

The Organisation of African First Ladies Against HIV/AIDS (OAFLA) has teamed up to fight against the Mother-to-Child transmission of HIV through a programme called ‘Save the Unborn Child First Ladies Campaign.’

Recently, African First ladies met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to review progress made on their 2006-2008 action plan.

Officially opening the extraordinary general meeting, OAFLA president Maureen Mwanawasa expressed happiness over the progress made in the implementation of the set goals.

Mrs Mwanawasa, who is also the First Lady of the Republic of Zambia disclosed that her organisation had mobilised US$300,000 from UNAIDS for implementation of its programmes as well as office equipment such as computers, photocopiers and fax machines for the secretariat.

She also disclosed that OAFLA technical advisors were accorded an opportunity to undergo a capacity building course to in Addis Ababa in 2007.

The objective of the course was to help the technical advisors to implement various OAFLA programmes at country and regional levels more effectively.

Mrs Mwanawasa also said that OAFLA had developed a partnership with UNFPA to launch a new female condom in all the regions so that women could protect themselves from contracting HIV/AIDS.

Despite the OAFLA success story, the organisation is still experiencing some challenges.

OAFLA has, for instance, not implemented programmes such as monitoring and evaluation of its organisation due to limited funds.

The First Ladies are, however, ready to undertake this programme as soon as funds are available.

And UNAIDS deputy executive director, Deborah Landey, commended the African First Ladies for their contribution to the HIV/AIDS response in Africa.

She said African First Ladies were a special and unique high profile advocates who were capable bringing positive change in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa.

She added that it was gratifying to see African First Ladies breaking the silence on the epidemic and speaking freely about the impact of AIDS on men, women and children in Africa and also about ways to halt the spread of the scourge which has continued to devastate families.

Ms Landey was hopeful that the interventions being made by the African First Ladies would certainly help in stabilising or even reducing the levels of HIV/AIDS in Africa.

And UN Special Envoy on AIDS in Africa, Elizabeth Mataka, said the First Ladies’ role as advocates in the response to AIDS was extremely vital.

Mrs Mataka said that there was, however, need for the First Ladies to help in addressing cultural practices and personal attitudes that made women and girls vulnerable to HIV/AIDS.

“We can change legislation and policy but nothing will change unless we address cultural practices that make women and girls vulnerable to the epidemic,” said Mrs Mataka.

OAFLA has also developed another action plan for 2007-2008 in which it is promoting the use of Microbicides and production of a user-friendly female condom which should be distributed freely.

OAFLA has also planned to evaluate its activities since 2002 and also create dynamic publicity materials.
So what next after this action plan?

OAFLA president says her organisation needs to develop a framework that places an African woman at the centre and not on the sidelines of HIV/AIDS activities.

Mrs Mwanawasa says OAFLA needs to develop a holistic approach for the African woman that will cover broadening access to financial resources, improving her health and education, reducing the amount of time that she spends on errands such as fetching water and sourcing for energy in form of wood and charcoal.

“Above all, we must put in place programmes that focus on empowering a woman’s mind so that she can understand that her life can be different, her circumstances can change.

‘‘She can make informed decisions and gain control over her reproductive health,” said Mrs Mwanawasa.

It is gratifying to learn that the First Ladies are not only focusing on saving the unborn child from HIV but also ensuring that HIV positive women have access to treatment themselves so that they can live long enough to look after their children.
(The author is the first secretary for Press at the Zambian embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)

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