Zambia's HIV 'warrior' MP taking on taboos

Princess Kasune

Princess Kasune is one of Zambia's most outspoken HIV activists and was elected as an opposition MP in August.

She tested positive to HIV in 1997 and the next year went public about her status, defying her husband - and traditional taboos - in doing so.

"I felt like a ray of light had hit me after testing positive and I shouted 'Praise God!'. Such a reaction was not humanly possible even for me to understand but I looked at it as an avenue to change the lives of others," the 40-year-old told the BBC.

"When I realised that I was HIV-positive, I realised that I had a responsibility to spread the news from how it can be contracted, how it can be prevented and also breaking the stigma and the silence."

For most of her life, Ms Kasune has been affected by the virus. Growing up in a rural village, she lost both her parents to Aids when she was 14 years old.

She became the head of the household, providing for her siblings, and was then married off at 18.


Driven by a passion to see a generation free of HIV, her own decision to go public about her status divided opinion - not at least with her late husband whom she suspects infected her as his first two wives had died.

Ms Kasune's church excommunicated her for being defiant, and going against her spouse's wishes about keeping her HIV status a secret.

Her own family was also against her status being known.

"I have not taken any moment in my life lightly but I have realised that to each one of us, there is a challenge and in this generation, HIV is one of those challenges," she says.

"One day a question will be asked about what we did about HIV and I hope I will be able to answer my grandchildren and many generations to come.

"I long to see an HIV-free generation and hopefully a day without stigma."

And she has travelled worldwide as part of her mission, meeting leaders like former US Presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush, as well as outgoing UN chief Ban Ki-moon.

Yet it is in Zambia that Ms Kasune, who has authored Warrior Princess - a book chronicling her life, wants to make the biggest impact.

This is what prompted her to run for parliament for the opposition United Party for National Development and become the first publicly known HIV-positive MP.

During her maiden speech, she reminded her fellow lawmakers about the importance of testing for the virus.

"It's important for parliamentarians in particular to go for HIV tests in public or share their HIV status because leaders set the pace in everything that we do in a country," Ms Kasune later told the BBC.

"I think leaders have a big role and many more people will follow when they do that."

'Hiding our status fuels stigma'

Her constituency is located about an hour north of the capital, Lusaka, and her visits are celebrated.

At a school she has helped construct through Fountain of Life, an organisation she co-founded, pupils sing her praises.

Zambia's HIV figures

Image copyright Thinkstock
  • Number of people living with HIV: 1.2 million
  • Adults aged 15 to 49, prevalence rate: 12.9%
  • Aids-related deaths last year: 20,000
  • Aids orphans, up to age of 17: 380 000

Source: UNAids - Zambia 2015 estimates

"She has inspired a lot of people including myself in the sense that if a person is HIV-positive and has come out openly, that's a good thing because people are dying because of stigma," says head teacher Godfrey Monga.

"When people were voting for her, being HIV-positive was not an issue. Her courage shows that even if one is positive, they can be productive in society."

Zambia is among the countries with the most HIV cases in Africa - about 1.2 million people, out of a population of about 14 million - are believed to have the virus that causes Aids.

And analysts believe that confronting stigma is key in the fight against the epidemic.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Zambia's government uses different strategies in its fight against HIV...
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Including UN-backed projects distributing information about HIV counselling services

"If people were to come out in the open, we would actually break the stigma… fuelled by hiding behind closed doors. Some of us are not even telling our partners, are not telling our friends," says Constance Mudenda from the government-owned Centre for Infection Diseases Research in Zambia (CIDRZ), who is herself HIV-positive.

The Zambian government has employed different strategies in combating HIV, like encouraging male circumcision, preventing mother-to-child transmission and warning against multiple concurrent partners.

Dr Chitalu Chilufya, the country's health minister, says leaders can play a crucial role in fighting HIV.

"By seeing a leader come out in the open, the public will actually ease about the scourge.

"So they will say if our leader can come out in the open, why won't we?"

For Ms Kasune, whose old church has now apologised for excommunicating her, confronting HIV requires all leaders pulling in the same direction.

The MP, who has re-married and has three children who are all negative, compares their role to that of a parent.

"Children are likely to do what we have been doing rather than what we have been saying.

"So I think we need to summon the courage and test publicly or share our results with the public," she says.

But it is not clear if all parliamentarians will be so bold.

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