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Story Publication logo August 31, 2010

The Question of Survival


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Last January's earthquake destroyed Haiti's health care system, once at the forefront of the...

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Multiple Authors
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Image by Andre Lambertson

The woman does not touch her belly as she speaks. Though her abdomen is full and round, pushing against her stiff khaki dress, straining the buttons, she does not rest her hand on it as pregnant women typically do. In fact, she avoids it, treating the child that has been growing inside her for seven months as if it is a foreign object, as opposed to a part of her.

She will not tell me her name. She cannot risk it, because she is afraid of what will happen if her friends or family find out she is HIV positive. No one knows, not even the father of her unborn child. "It is only me, and God, and the doctors who know," she says.

She is 34, and this is her fourth child. The two older children, 17 and 13, are with their father. She and her 5-year-old are staying with her brother, because her house collapsed during the earthquake.

When she found out she was pregnant, she cried and cried, because she knew she would lose her job at the clothing factory. "I don't see how I am going to live, there is nowhere to take this baby because I don't have a house," she says. "And if I did, there could be an aftershock, and the house would collapse and kill us both." She is also afraid the baby will be HIV positive, though she has been coming here to the Fame Pereo Institute, which specializes in HIV/AIDS and leprosy, to take the drugs to prevent mother to child transmission.

She found out she was HIV positive in November 2006, and though she says she doesn't know how she was infected, it becomes apparent that she got the virus from the father of the 5-year-old. "My boyfriend was sick for three years," she says. "He stopped eating and became very thin, so his family took him to a voodoo priest." The voodoo priest told her boyfriend that he had been cursed, but that he could undo the spell. "We spent all our money making the priest richer and richer," she says, "but my boyfriend died."

And so there she was, a young woman with no money and three children—one an infant—to care for. So she did what so many women here do—she found another man to support her. She could not tell this new man that she was HIV positive; "I cannot tell him. If I ever tell him, he will run," she says. And clearly, though she swears that she always uses condoms, they have been having unprotected sex. ("So it is the good Lord who gave you this baby?" asks Dr. Claude Pean, director of the Fame Pereo Institute, when the woman insists that she always uses protection.)

I then ask her if she isn't afraid that she will pass this disease on to the baby's father. She doesn't answer. She looks away. She talks about something else instead.

Tim Valda, a psychologist at Fame Pereo, has heard this story from several young women many times before. "Yes, they are concerned about passing on the disease," she says, "but the question of survival is more important." Valda tells the story of a woman with an abusive boyfriend who says she has to stay with the man because he pays the rent and gives food to her children. "The situation is complicated, and the earthquake has made it worse," says Valda. "At least before the quake, some women used to have work, but now they cannot do anything." So now, more than ever, how else can poor women support themselves?

The woman is not as nervous as she was when I first began the interview. So at the end, I ask if we can take a picture—not of her face, but of her belly. She agrees, stands and straightens her dress. Then she places her hands gently, one over the other, on her belly, and poses for the portrait.

Photos for this post shot by Andre Lambertson


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