In 2009, just when Mary Ero was arriving at what many would consider the peak of her career in TV Production and Marketing Communications, she was diagnosed with HIV. What followed were a series of unfortunate events. These eventually drove her to re-examine the social paradigms that led to her infection and that leads to the infection of other young women.
Thanks to her training in kanthari, a school for social visionaries in India, Mary is now channelling her 15 years’ experience into issues related to women’s rights as they connect to HIV/ AIDS. Her latest venture is The LOLO Project, a social enterprise that provides young women living with HIV with skills and jobs in areas of the media usually dominated by men.
The first time I was 13, maybe 14. It had been on a holiday visit to an uncle. My grand uncle to be precise; my grandmother’s brother. A priest. Barely had we arrived at his house and settled in before he began his sexual advances towards me. Over the course of two weeks he would sexually abuse me repeatedly at night, punishing me with insults and food deprivation in the morning if I resisted, and rewarding me with treats if I complied. By the time I had arrived home I was dead; in the way a talking, moving breathing person can die. I was dead for 15 years where I barely talked to anyone about it but engaged in promiscuous behavior and exhibited intense rage because of it. 15 years.
The other time that I distinctly felt like I had died was when I received the email from MTV terminating my appointment. Interestingly enough, a few months before that, when I was 10 weeks pregnant, I had been informed that I was HIV positive. But I did not die then; I was even comforting my doctor.
(Now that was a funny story.
A week or so blood had been drawn for the routine HIV test given to pregnant women. The tests at the clinic I attended were inconclusive so I had to pay for them to take the blood sample to the almighty LUTH where a more comprehensive test would be carried out. A few days later I received a phone call from him; he wanted me to come to his office. When I arrived there he had his head in his hands and on his desk was an open file- presumably a case note – with the words HIV POSITIVE written in bold, large red letters. Font size 80. (Because small letters may have diminished the effect of the virus in my bloodstream.) The doctor had his head in his hands and was looking down as I walked in. I said hello took a seat. Immediately he began “ermm…, you see…, the things is…”. “It’s okay”, I said patting his hand, “I have already seen it.” “Thank God” he said with apparent relief as he took out a handkerchief and mopped his forehead. Probably because I had been anticipating this result during the few days wait, and because I realized that between my doctor and I one person had to be strong, I was not particularly moved by the declaration of my status. I did not die then. I died a few months later.)
When I was 6 months pregnant, in a funny twist of events, I was pushed out of my job in MTV. For a long time, this was a very painful issue to me because of how it happened, because of when it happened. (It is still painful to regurgitate.) It was December and time for the perfunctory renewal/renegotiation of my employment contract. To be honest, I expected nothing other than a positive outcome, especially as about 2 months before, the Vice President, my boss, in a rare show of emotion, and seeing how hard I had worked on our event even though I was pregnant and sick, had pulled me aside and said “you are so hardworking. I will take care of you” ….
At that time everyone had temporary contracts in MTV Nigeria. My then supervisor in South Africa asked me by email if I wanted to renew my contract so he could renegotiate with HR for me. I replied in the affirmative. I thought it a bit odd that he did not ask what the terms were, but I dismissed it thinking he probably already knew. The next day he returned via email to ask if a working week of 5 days (Monday to Friday) and a salary of $2k was a deal breaker. I replied immediately saying yes, as those were exactly the terms I had previously. He then responded immediately saying “it was nice working with you”. I remember reeling from my computer, stunned and confused. What just happened I wondered? I tried to contact him but he was just somewhat apologetic saying he tried his best. Then I knew that it was a collective decision. What I didn’t understand was why. What more could I have done to show my dedication to that organisation? And that haunted me for many years.
The third time I remember dying was when, at 7 and a half months pregnant, I became homeless. In a very strange turn of events, my best friend who I was staying with at that time, decided she had had enough of me. She began by keeping malice with me for more than 2 weeks. Eventually, when I finally made her speak about the issue she said I was becoming too comfortable in her house and she really needed me to leave. Her main complaint was a disagreement we had two weeks earlier which I had considered minor. She then said she dreaded the possibility of my having my baby in her house (all her words, not mine). She was a single mum who knew what the implications of having a child were so in many ways she was afraid of the economic and adjustment consequences. I found myself scrambling, because I had two weeks, to find another place to stay. A former colleague took me into her house just in the nick of time. She was so kind and patient with me even taking care of my feeding in addition. However, something was not right from the beginning. I could tell that some people in the house did not want me there; particularly her mother. My suspicions were confirmed when one night, about a month later- and three weeks before my delivery- her sometimes live-in partner, evicted me. God bless her, she fought tooth and nail to stop what seemed like a collusion of some members of her family and the erstwhile partner. Finally, she decided that it would be unwise to have a pregnant woman caught up in the crossfire and she made plans to relocate me. I must commend this dear friend of mine, at this point because despite all her efforts to assist me she never once asked me the question others were asking ‘why do you not just go to your parents in Benin”. Of course, I stayed in Lagos because in addition to being taken care of in pregnancy, I needed to have access to the HIV treatment I was receiving from my doctor but she did not know that. No one did. Ironically, I found out in the 8th month of my pregnancy that this doctor was taking advantage of my situation and charging the equivalent of 100 dollars a month, for drugs that were contraindicated in pregnancy!
Anyway, two days, or so, after the spat between my friend and her family, I was moved into the home of a mutual former colleague. Initially, it seemed great but over the month or so I stayed there, the emotional trauma I endured- a long story for another post- especially after giving birth to my child, made me scurry back to my parents’ in Benin immediately after. I stayed there for 2 years….
There are so many more intricacies before and after this extract from my life story but there is a reason I am sharing this bit – and it is not to partake in the tell-all/clapback wonder that 2016 has been (although I think that has been a very good thing). The theme for the World AIDS Day 2016 is Access Equity Rights Now. For me this is so significant because of the things I know now.
Access: There have been enormous advances made in the treatment and care of HIV and AIDS in the last 2 decades, worldwide. Even between when I was diagnosed, and now. However, all the progress in the world means nothing if the people who need it are unable to access it. And in Nigeria, it is getting increasingly difficult for people to access treatment. The reasons for this difficulty border on financial impropriety on the part of government, economic situation of the PLWHAs and – surprise- gender. Funding in cash and kind for the treatment and care of HIV in Nigeria comes from international bodies. Unfortunately, these sources are dwindling. Last year, Global Fund pulled out of funding Nigeria citing massive impropriety. The result is that the cost was pushed on the patients. However, it is poor patients who attend the public clinics, as the affluent ones seem to have some sort of means of getting treatment. About 2 years ago, when I still used to attend the public health centre, I saw how the number of patients reduced dramatically when people had to pay 5000 naira to have their blood drawn. This is a necessary measure for PLWHAs especially in determining what the next step of treatment will be. So, imagine how many people are walking around with drug-resistant HIV just because they jumped treatment. I don’t dare imagine how much that number has increased even now. Again, gender determines access, unfortunately. In my experience, women are less likely to seek treatment than men, because of shame, because of fear, because of judgement. There is more to the issue of gender but that should probably go under the word ‘rights’.
(PS. Access also has a flip side. PLWHAs need to come out of hiding. People need to get tested. Just yesterday, there was a quote from the WHO estimating that about 14 million people globally are unaware that they are HIV positive. I think the number is even more. Unless there is an absolute need, such as pregnancy or chronic illness, people in Nigeria do not get tested. That is a real danger. Other people need to shut up and stop shaming PLWHAs; we have a sickness, we did not murder anyone. And finally, the silence around sex and sexuality needs to be broken for any progress – medical or otherwise – to have effect.)
Rights: When we speak of women’s rights and gender equality it may sound like some far-fetched, unnecessary idea. But in practice gender equality may mean the difference between life and death for a lot of people, especially women. Consider that 64% of all new infections in Nigeria, among young people, are of girls/ women ages 15-24 (according to UNAIDS). Where is this coming from? It is coming from transactional sex; from women being unable to mitigate their sexual risk by exercising control over their sexual and reproductive health. How many women, married or single can actually negotiate sex with their partners? Let us be honest. Or ask him to use a condom? How many people agree that a man can rape his wife? This is why I think all these open conversations – whether in form of books, social media discussions, secret forums or whatever- are necessary. We need to stop shrinking; stop keeping quiet, stop handing over your future in sex, because you are a woman (as they like to say).
Equity: Feeding off of rights is the fact that equity can be legislated. And such legislation can positively affect several generations of women. I think that we as Nigerian women need to do more to ensure that our aspirations are incorporated into legislation. We cannot continue to be governed by ancient rules that tell us what age we must marry, make us request for permission from an absentee father to give birth to our own child, or deny us or our children, rights if we are unmarried.
Now: Because there is no time as the present.
(PLWHA = People Living With HIV and AIDS)
To find out more about Mary & The LOLO Project, and get involved please visit www.theloloproject.org. You can also read more of her life with HIV on www.asitwasnotinthebeginning.wordpress.com and women’s issue on www.thelongerfword.wordpress.com.