DESPITE the danger of being ostracized from her community or even stoned to death, 19-year-old Yinka Jegede-Ekpe went ahead and announced to her fellow Nigerians that she was HIV-positive.
In a country where women’s public voices are muted, she went on to set up a group to encourage her compatriots to speak out, fight stigmatization and raise awareness.
“The organization was formed to bring women out of their shells, because we have been trapped for far too long,” Ms. Jegede-Ekpe, who is now 25 years old, told Africa Renewal in New York in September.
“We believe women should come out and speak about their concerns about the HIV prevalence rate as well as treatment issues.”
Far too often the voices of the few women brave enough to attend mixed-gender gatherings could not rise above those of men, she said.
And it was the men who would speak for them on issues that primarily concerned women.
“More women than men in Africa are infected. It is they who care for people who are sick,” the activist noted.
“The issue of preventing mother-to-child transmission does not necessarily concern men. It is women who need to know how to protect their children.”
In 2001, Ms. Jegede-Ekpe joined forces with other women to form the National Community of Women Living with AIDS.
It teaches women about their rights and gives them gender-specific information on HIV/AIDS. Under-staffed and ill-financed, the organization still operates only in Lagos state, even though it aims for a national reach.
Speaking out has not been easy. When Ms. Jegede-Ekpe revealed her HIV status while still in nursing school, the principal tried to expel her.
Her dorm-mates locked her out of the women’s bathrooms and relegated her to menial chores. But she fought for her right to continue studying.
Finding out that she had been infected through the unhygienic practices of her dentist, Ms. Jegede-Ekpe fought for changes in dental procedures.
The fight has been worth it because of the changes she sees taking place in the communities of Lagos.
“Right now, if a man comes to the podium and tries to speak for the women and children, I am sure that a woman will stand up from the crowd and say, ‘Please don’t talk for me while I’m here.’”
Ms. Jegede-Ekpe was awarded the 2004 Reebok Human Rights Award in New York for courage in changing her country’s response to HIV/AIDS.
Her organization is currently working on setting up a crisis fund for women and an educational trust fund for orphans.