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Friday 29 September 2023 Dublin: 11°C
Opinion HIV positive women face a unique set of challenges
On the 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day, women who have HIV still face increased stigma, writes Dr Denise Proudfoot

THE EXPERIENCE OF living with HIV is quite different for women compared to men.

Annually women represent approximately a quarter of those newly diagnosed with HIV in Ireland, many are under 40, have children and may be dealing with difficult social circumstances; these women are rarely talked about.

I have worked and researched in this area for some time and have always had an interest in what life is like for those who are diagnosed with HIV.

I want to share with you some of the challenges that face women who are diagnosed or living with HIV to allow for some understanding as to how being HIV positive affects them.

Firstly, women may have a HIV test for a variety of reasons. It may be due to antenatal testing or because they may be concerned that they have an STI.

Many are unprepared for a HIV positive result and their initial reaction is shock and concern for what this means for them and those they care about, which may include their children.

For many women, becoming HIV positive may be emotionally difficult due to their own and societies view of those who are HIV positive.

Myths persist about the type of people who contradict HIV. HIV remains a stigmatised condition even though its treatment and life expectancy have dramatically improved in the last couple of decades.

This view of HIV affects how those who are HIV positive deal with life after their diagnosis. Some affected women will have moved to Ireland from countries where HIV  is still a feared condition which devastated communities, so it is understandable that these memories leave a legacy and affect how they respond to their own diagnosis.

A fear of judgement from others may lead some women to keep their diagnosis a secret and this limits their opportunities for support from other women in the same situation or HIV support centres.

Intimate relationships can be complex for women after this diagnosis. They need to tell their partner, who may become angry or believe this means they have been unfaithful – which may not be the case at all.

Women with children may want to tell them about the diagnosis but struggle with the timing of this depending on their children’s ages.
Being pregnant for HIV positive women is a very different experience to women who are not living with the virus.

Many women with HIV have babies after their diagnosis, they need to take medication when they are pregnant to prevent their babies contracting HIV from them. This can result in an extra stress during pregnancy, but this treatment is very successful and most babies are now born without the virus.

Support is extremely important after this diagnosis and its absence can affect a women’s mental well-being at a time when she needs it most.

Recent research has shown that people living with HIV  often internalise negative beliefs about themselves due to their diagnosis, and this, in turn, affects how the adjust and in time live with their condition.

Being HIV positive women will naturally need some adjustment and life can be good once people are helped through this emotional time.

Excellent support service – both face to face and online – exist for people living with HIV and support especially from those in the same situation can be really useful and improve how one manages life with this condition.

There is a lot of hope for those living with HIV nowadays and it is important to understand that this diagnosis is different for women largely because of their social circumstances and caring responsibilities.

HIV while treatable remains a diagnosis with far-reaching consequences and for women there are unique challenges which warrant acknowledgement.

Dr Denise Proudfoot is an Assistant Professor at School of Nursing and Human Sciences, DCU.

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