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My brother died a year ago – 29th June 2009, we buried him on the 2nd of July 2009. It doesn’t feel like it’s been a year, in fact it feels like it was just yesterday when I got the call that he was dead.

Because we’re split across continents and with my other brother getting married next year, we’re going to do the proper memorial next year. So I spent the day at home, doing some quiet reflection, my sister sent me some Bible passages to read and I spoke to my mum – to make sure she was ok. Like a true African woman, she was being strong, more worried about everyone else, then allowing herself to publicly mourn. I’m not good with emotions, so I played along with her, and talked about other things – like the birth of two calves at the farm.

Everyone in the family is dealing in their own way, though it is difficult for all of us. I think it’s always difficult to lose someone in your family because you feel like you lose a part of yourself. For me, it’s been even more difficult because my brother and I fell out. His drinking made me ashamed of him. He was extremely intelligent but he’d become an alcoholic, who roamed the farm area with the local farm hands – and I was embarrassed. It never occurred to me that he felt comfortable with him because they never judged him. Whereas I was just worried about what everyone else thought (Zambia is a classist society). We never seemed to connect after that. For that I feel the most sad.

Even when he was diagnosed with HIV, I never wanted that to be the reason for us to patch up our differences, but now I wish I had. I just didn’t want him to think that the HIV made him a different person. I didn’t want it to define him. I thought we’d have more time.

And sometimes I feel like I’m a fake because my job requires that I push out messages of hope, but I worry that we don’t tell the complete truth. Maybe we need to start talking to the families of people living with HIV too, HIV doesn’t only affect the person living with the virus in their body. Sure HIV doesn’t define who a person is, but it is something that makes us realise that we are mortal, that life is short. HIV shouldn’t be a reason to mend bridges with your loved ones, but helps push you in the right direction. Otherwise you live with the pain of, ‘i wish i had…’.

It’s easy to be angry with the virus, but anger keeps you stuck, especially when you internalise that anger. My brother’s death has helped bring my family closer together and made us more aware of what is going on in each others lives. It’s also made me realise how important my family is to me, they drive me insane, but they are my first priority and I’ll do what it takes to make sure we’re ok.

The experience has changed me. I’d already lost a best friend to this virus, and that hurt, but losing family, that’s a lot to bear. In my case two brothers. Enough is enough. So it’s strengthened my resolve with my work. It’s not enough to have the most creative and visually arresting programme, it’s got to have an impact, even if the impact is getting people to talk. HIV is not something we should be ashamed of, but it’s not something we need to pretend is a virus that is even remotely easy to deal with.

In the meantime, I think I’ll stick to the gym to work out my internal struggles. Thanks for listening, I needed to get this off my chest.

I’m addicted to shopping. There I said it. In the last month or so I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of money on handbags, clothes, electronics and other personal items. I am an emotional shopper; frustration, anger, sadness all lead me to the nearest shop in sight. And you know you’re an addict when you hide your purchases from friends and family, and even colleagues at work! Or make excuse, ‘no, I didn’t buy it, so and so gave it to me, aren’t they nice?’ I’ve been doing that for years.
But I’ve noticed that my purchases have become a little bit more expensive, a Marc Jacobs handbag, a Michael Kors clutch, a MacBook, a professional straightener (erm my 3rd one!) and I’m beginning to wonder if its influenced by what I see around me. In fact I know it is – that and the fact that I can now actually afford it. I see these products in my favourite magazines, with women I admire and maybe even someone talking about it being a must have. And then I feel I must have it!
So what if I change my environment would that help? I don’t know. Ok maybe if I’d never been in the environment in the first place, then I’d still have the shopping addiction but for less pricey stuff.
I was actually going to relate this to HIV messaging and how messaging to the individual is no doubt crucial, but equally so is messaging to the community. How the community dictates what is acceptable and what is not, making it a healthy environment to talk about sex without shame or discrimination, allowing it to be a good thing to use protection (condoms) in relationships (including marriage) etc.
And that in turn would make people within the communities have better, safer behaviours and create enabling environments for those already living with the virus. A win win situation right?
But then I thought back to my original statement; I have an addictive personality and I’m addicted to shopping. That’s within me, it’s not a product of my environment.
Maybe the whole nature vs nurture argument is just a cop out, an enabling argument for people who don’t want to take responsibility for their behaviour? If it was socially unacceptable to be a shopaholic, I’d lie about my sprees. Oh wait, I already said that I occasionally do that too, though Lord knows why. But my point is, this is the same thing that people who don’t want to change their behaviour will do.
It’s funny – and now I’m completely going off on a tangent (as I usually do) – I was having this discussion with a friend and talking about the sexual risks my friends (ok myself included) took back in Zambia. Using condoms or not, we’d still have sex. Russian roulette with our lives right? Some of those friends regrettably did end up with the bullet. It didn’t stop us.
Then I moved to London. Now, I’m not particularly a fan of the media (ironic i know), but I just see how this can be manipulated, and I do take everything I see on TV or hear on radio with a pinch of salt (if i wasn’t there myself, not sure it happened, or certainly the way the media said it did). But anyway, there was something about the way AIDS in Africa was reported and depicted or the way people talked about it that scared the crap out of me. Now, if I have sex, when I go back home for holidays or whatever, it’s always protected! – oh wait, so wasn’t that as a result of my environment?
Point is, we need to do both – change the individual and change the community.

Today my sister said to be that the silence around HIV in families kills. Despite the fact that my sister usually is a bit of a drama queen today I thought she was actually right.
A family member disclosing their HIV status is a scary thing – for both the person and for the family. In the last few years I’ve personally been affected by HIV more than I ever would have considered possible. Not sure why, I am from a country where 1 in 5 people are HIV+.
Some of these relatives are openly positive, others, while not in denial, not really talk about it or acknowledge it, no matter how many times it puts them in hospital. So what are you supposed to talk about? I don’t think talking about it is easy, and sometimes I do wonder what you’re supposed to say. This is yet another problem with the virus, its become an inaccessible topic.
We do need to be talking about management of the disease, what sort of support our friends and family need, but often we don’t know how to bring this up. Almost fearful of the elephant in the room. There’s available information out there for people living with HIV, but what about for the immediate family and friends?
We want to help, we want to be supportive, we want to talk, but we don’t know how or where to begin.
Even now, having lost two brothers, I always wish I had said certain things and now it’s too late. I don’t want it to be too late with other relatives. So I guess you just take a deep breath, open your mouth and just speak.

It’s interesting how we’re looking into how we use mobile technologies in our HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness campaigns and that the latest ‘sex’ craze (for lack of a better phrase) revolves around using mobile phones.
I’m not sure why sexting is such a big deal right now – surely it’s been going on since people discovered texting – but I guess it’s getting more common and the fact that young people and kids are doing this as well. More people do need to talk about it because there are so many implications around it. The most obvious being having your phone captured pictures leaked online and/or distributed electronically through more texting, you just need to think of all the celebrity scandals over the last few months revolving mobile phones and text messages.
More than that terrible embarrassment and/or potential humiliation, it also allows for the easy and free distribution of child porn.
Today I was reading about some kid in the US who tricked and bribed kids, boys i think, to send him nude pictures of themselves, kids as young as 15! And then got them to perform sexual acts on him. Very disturbing to say the least.

It’s just another factor that makes it easier for young people to get sexually exploited and even more sexualised. It wouldn’t be surprising if young girls these days think its ok to send a graphic text or image than actually have sex with a guy. But again it’s this whole lack of understanding of what these messages or images mean or can do. And then it just snowballs to having full on sex at some point.
Responsible sexting can be a good thing for a healthy relationship so I’m not totally against it, but where you have vulnerable people, it can be really dangerous.
This is just another indication of how pervasive new technologies can be and those of us involved in sexual health communication or any type of education that helps develop people, need to keep up and in fact work at a faster rate to get messages out.
Using mobile capabilities to spread messages or a health message in some form has got to become a norm, but other than in South Africa with PopTech’s Project Masiluleke, I don’t really know anyone who is successfully using this technology.
It’s an interesting one to explore and see what develops. Maybe we can come up with some sexy but safe templates people can use for their sexting exploits (that’s a free idea for you to have – anymore, you need to pay me for!).
But sexting isn’t going to go away anytime soon, and its only going to get worse – as we’ve already seen – as mobile technologies get better with videos being filmed and sent at faster speeds and better qualities – and young people who are getting more and more sexualised every day.

This is a re-post from www.staying-alive.org but I really liked it so wanted to share:

When I told my friend Sam that I was a “vagina warrior,” he couldn’t help but burst out laughing.
“A vagina warrior?” He questioned, “What does that even mean?”
A fair enough response to such a statement… similar to mine when I first heard the term. “Vagina warrior” conjured up images of a jousting labia and an armored clitoris fighting other labias and clitorises for world vaginal domination… or something like that.
In reality, the term is far less comical and far more important.

Vagina Warrior: a vagina friendly person of any gender identification who embodies the spirit of equality and empowerment, and assists in the battle to end violence against women.

Sufficed to say, Sam was thrilled that despite his penis, he could join the Vagina Warrior team!

The term was coined by Eve Ensler, activist and author of the critically acclaimed Vagina Monologues. Ensler also created V-Day, her own “holiday” of sorts that corresponds with Valentine’s Day and raises awareness about violence against women and girls. On V-Day, Vagina Monologues is performed in thousands of locations worldwide.

But, as vday.org will tell you, “Performance is just the beginning. V-Day stages large-scale benefits and produces innovative gatherings, films and campaigns to educate and change social attitudes towards violence against women.”

The money raised is distributed to thousands of different organizations but every year the V-Day team choose one particular initiative to spotlight. This year, they’re hoping to empower women and girls of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They rage with a raw yet truthful statement, “STOP RAPING OUR GREATEST RESOURCE.”

Certainly this type of brutality and dehumanization isn’t a fun or popular topic, but it is an important and all too pressing one.

Violence against women (and women not feeling empowered in general) is arguably one of the largest contributors to the spread of HIV/AIDS. Sometimes it’s as complicated as rape and sometimes it’s as simple as a consenting young woman lacking the confidence to say, “put on a condom.”

And yet in these sad circumstances, there is reason to hope. If violence against women, inequality, injustice and dis-empowerment are central causes to HIV/AIDS then it would stand that peace, equality, justice and empowerment for women have the potential to be an arsenal in the battle against HIV and AIDS.

Turning the tide for women won’t be easy and, as strange as it sounds, it certainly isn’t something that women can accomplish by themselves. We need to call upon all the penis-clad warriors to rise with us. Yes we need to educate our daughters, sisters, mothers, friends but we also need to educate our sons, brothers and fathers. (And of course those who don’t associate with just one gender as well.)

But, as my teacher (and vagina warrior on her own accord) Mrs. Mary Morris likes to remind me, “it’s all about setting manageable goals.” So perhaps we can’t change attitudes over night but we certainly can have a starting point.

So I’m going to use V-Day as a launching pad and issue a challenge to anybody who is willing to take it up.

Define “vagina warrior” on your own terms, what it means to YOU and how you can implement these principles into your life. That can mean removing certain derogatory words for women from your vocabulary, mentoring young people or having a heart-to-heart with someone you love.

I’ve sought out some incredible young people to give you their definitions. Use them as a starting place, an inspiration, a jumping off point. And, if you feel compelled, share with us your response in the comments section below.

For Cassie Hoeprich, director of the Women’s Action Committee at the University of Washington and Co-Producer of her schools production of The Vagina Monologues, being a vagina warrior “is more than just advocating for women. It’s about becoming aware of how all aspects of society have created inequalities within gender, but also within race, class, ability, etc. Acknowledging intersectionality can help us understand the different experiences that different women have. Eve Ensler has done quite a bit in advocating for what she had come to see the female voice as, but now it’s time that we start realizing it is crucial to actually include every voice instead of speaking for one another. Being a vagina warrior is respecting the range of people that identify as women and seeking allyship through out the process.”

For Tomek Latak Fior, artist and musician, “I consider myself a vagina warrior because when I’m talking to a girl I treat her as if her life and what’s going on in her world is as important and valid as my own. Like, if she mentions her period or concern over getting pregnant – I know that it’s legit conversation (instead of acting like a douche like some of my friends do). I see girls as human beings, not some idea of what “girls” are supposed to be like. I find that people like being treated like people.”

For my handsome friend Sam being a vagina warrior, “means treating all women with the same respect that I would want shown to my mom. It also means calling people out when they’re not showing decency and respect. I know a lot of guys who think that as long as they’re not being an ass, all is good. But they need to remind their friends to behave as well. I’m a vagina warrior because I treat women like people… I also really dig vaginas.”

The lovely picture of vagina warriors was taken by Lalita Love, a vagina warrior herself.

This post is by Carina Kolodny

Carina Kolodny is a writer and expert coffee shop loiterer based out of NYC. When not writing (or loitering) she can usually be found traveling the world or jumping out of airplanes. She became interested in HIV education while working with the Red Cross in Fiji. This was an enriching though terrifying experience as she hates snakes almost as much as she hates grammar. She counts Fiji, Cuba and Tanzania as second homes and strongly believes in the power of self love and red lipstick.

Sorry I’ve been away for awhile, I’d gone away to help a friend ‘find herself’. As a ‘grown up’ woman, I do find it sad and hard to believe how many so called grown women are still battling with self-esteem issues. I suppose in a way we all have those feelings once in awhile where we doubt ourselves in one aspect or another. But this women, she seems to perpetually be in that state. On the surface, she’s a beautiful successful woman. She’s intelligent, and has a body to die for. But inside, it’s like she hasn’t caught up with that exterior. She’s like a young girl, stuck somewhere between being a little girl and being a woman.
This causes all sorts of problems for her in her personal life, she always seems to be caught up in destructive relationships – with men who cared nothing for her. If you meet her you’d think she’s a strong, independent, opinionated woman, but know anything about her relationships and you’d wonder if it was the same person. She tended to be with men who treated her like a plaything, often times these men had other women in their lives and only called on my friend when they wanted sex with minimal drama.
The problem was as a young girl, she was violated in the worst way possible, raped by two men who she knew – well two different occassions but within a few months of each act, amounting to three times in total. I think this pretty much screwed up any self love she might have had for herself, especially since she’d been an 18 year old already struggling with her looks. And I don’t think she ever recovered.
But the problem with her and other women with self-esteem problems is that because they don’t love themselves they put themselves in situations that can be harmful – like having unprotected sex with men they barely know. That was the thing that worried me about my friend – she’d know to get herself tested but even if the men she was sleeping with didn’t want to get tested, she’d still have unprotected sex with them.
Her story isn’t unique at all and this is what bothers me. We focus a lot of our prevention campaigns around using condoms, getting tested and saying no to sex. But the reality is we need to tackle the fundamental issues of self love. It’s already a hard battle for women in my generation (not that i’m that old!), but what about teenage girls growing up in a world where someone as talented as Beyonce is half naked in all her videos? Or even the videos where men seem to be talking appreciatively (until you actually listen to the words) of the curvaceous, skimpy clad girl dropping it like it’s hot?
They are being groomed to be a sexual object to be here to provide sexual gratification to a man, who if he really likes her will ‘spend it all on her and make her bed rock’.
I know we hear people talking about self-respect, but how do we instill respect in women when the media is full of images that promote anything but respect for women – whether it’s self-respect or from men (that’s another blog post for another day)?
If women, young and older, loved themselves, had higher self-esteem and self-respect, they wouldn’t be putting themselves in situations where they are disrespected or put at risk because of wanting to bend to a man’s sexual wants.
I’m happy to say that my friend finally acknowledged that she suffers from seriously low self-love after spending a weekend with a man who treated her badly – but had lots of sex with her – and she’s now seeking help. I have to admit, she’s one of the lucky ones, considering her sexual network – she’s very lucky.

The London Evening Standard did a survey asking people if they’d tell their current partners how many people they’d ever slept with. A surprising proportion of them said they would – ok it was about 10 people surveyed and about 8 of them said they would.
Sexual health dictates that we encourage people to talk openly about their sexual history and all that. But is there a way that you can do it without revealing your number of partners? Who doesn’t remember that scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral when Andie MacDowell’s character counts off the number of partners she’d had and Hugh Grant squirms and sweats as the number progresses over 10?
Is that not still the reality? Men are uncomfortable hearing how many people (male or female) their girlfriend has had – though could this be because they’re worried they can’t live up to expectations of her experiences? And women worry about being labeled.
I think we should encourage people to talk about sex so that they can talk to their partners about sexual health issues, getting tested and even sexual boundaries (some people are into more weird stuff than others).
But do we really need to get into numbers? And do we start judging people because of that? I.e. would a more sexually experienced woman have an issue with a man who’s only had two sexual partners in his lifetime? Would a man want to be with a woman who’s slept with 20 odd partners?
I don’t know, I just think the numbers game is a very tricky one. I think the Evening Standard went on to say that because the people were more open to disclosing their numbers they’d be more open to talking about their sexual health and other sexual issues. But if that’s true it clearly hasn’t done much, because the UK still has among the highest – if not the highest – rate of teenage pregnancies in Western Europe.
So again, I ask, what is the point of discussing your numbers? Keep it to have you had any sexually transmitted infections, can we get tested together and what method of protection will we use? – straight to the point.
Of course it would be nice if we could get to a point where sex is not so taboo and people can discuss anything without fear of judgment. Until then, I’m keeping mum about my number of sexual partners. I’m guessing one or none is the ideal number your partner wants to hear, and I don’t like to disappoint.

I know I’ve touched on this before but it really is such a big issue in the world of HIV prevention that I have to address it again. But this time from a woman’s perspective.
They do say to get men to do anything you’ve got to get them to believe that woman prefer that specific behaviour change – which I suppose makes sense (though I’ve never managed to convince any of my ex partners to clean up after themselves – it never sounded at all sexy I suppose).
But I’ve pondered this point – relating to circumcision – and even asked a few of my girlfriends – I’m not really big on promoting something I don’t actually subscribe to.
I come from a country where circumcision isn’t the norm, but do know people from other tribes and other countries where it is the norm. And this isn’t the first time women have discussed the whole circumcised, not circumcised thing, it’s a debate that has been raging on for years. Some women don’t care – especially those who have largely only had uncircumcised men, or have never been with a circumcised man. But those who have, they swear by them, insist there is nothing better.
I don’t sit on the fence on this one, I know exactly where I stand – and not just because of the seemingly well documented facts that circumcision is a step in the right direction for prevention.
A study in Uganda found an overwhelming majority of the 455 women surveyed stating that sex was equally, if not more so, satisfying after their partners were circumcised. That doesn’t surprise me either. I know more than a handful of women who after being with circumcised men have never looked back, and even just for the aesthetics – let’s face it, it’s a lot prettier to look at when it’s circumcised.
However, I have yet to find an uncircumcised man willing to get circumcised just because I said I preferred it. Either way, the condom still has to stay on and I still see that as being a big barrier. Tell men that if they get circumcised they don’t have to use a condom – that’s when you’ll see the queues at the local health centers going on for miles (obviously defeating the point though…).

Happy New Year everyone! It’s exciting to be in the new year. It’s another opportunity for us to reflect on the previous year and attempt to do better and not make the same mistakes. It really is a lot harder than it sounds.

The year in my team begins with planning what we want to do and accomplish this year. I’m doing it a little bit differently this year, but it’s led us into a debate about who our clients are. I’m tempted to say it’s the audience who watch our programming that are our clients, but we don’t get our money from them – we get it from our funding partners who want to reach our audience, so are they the clients?

It really is a crucial question that needs answering because it ultimately affect the products we produce. If you have any insights into how we identify this I’d be more than happy to hear it.

In the meantime – as I promised in one of my blogs way back, here is the first episode of Club Risky Business – the now award winning series, created and produced by Media 365 in Zambia (a company I am one of the directors of).