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Meanings of motherhood

In all cultures of the world, motherhood is considered to lie at the heart of the meaning of love.

Portrayed in art, music, drama, poetry, film and throughout our lives and deaths, motherhood forms a core part of all our cultures. Our relationship with our mother forms an essential part in shaping all our lives, whoever we are in the world and whatever we do with our lives.

All cultures of the world also consider motherhood traditionally to be the criterion by which a girl becomes a woman, through which she acquires standing, respect, identity, to some degree or other. Although many women in the West have chosen not to have children, they still maintain their right to have children and few would assume it acceptable to take this right to choice of motherhood away.

Picasso. Mother and Child by a Fountain (detail). Flickr image by *Clarity*

Yet this has not been the case – and is still not the case – for the great majority of women living with HIV. Immense advances in scientific techniques have meant that, in well resourced settings, where the right drugs and support are available, women with HIV can – and are already - giving birth naturally to children, 99% of whom are HIV-free[1].  They no longer even need to have a Caesarean section, provided that their viral load is undetectable and they are free from other conditions, such as herpes. These advances remove any lingering questions regarding the legitimacy of motherhood on the grounds of health issues. Yet old fears and attitudes die hard, in resourced and unresourced settings alike. Women’s rights to choice of motherhood are being denied.  This heart of all our cultures and beings as women is being ripped out from us.

In Namibia, women living with HIV are being told to sign on the dotted line during childbirth and only learn later that they have consented to sterilisation. Doctors who have been questioned about this practice freely explain that they do this because these women are HIV-positive and “already have too many children”[2]. In parts of Canada - such as the provinces of Québec and British Columbia – an otherwise healthy HIV-positive woman cannot receive donor sperm in the hopes of conceiving, or be considered for adoption. Women are finding it hard to obtain clear and timely information from government medical providers and social support services.  In Sierra Leone, the law can reach where health care does not – if a woman transmits HIV to her child (either through birth or breastfeeding), she can be fined or jailed up to seven years – or both – despite no drugs being available to help her or her child[3].

Women in many parts of the world are facing mandatory testing during pregnancy in centres where, as a consequence of a positive test result, they will be treated with abuse by health staff, will be beaten by family members and thrown out of their homes. These testing policies are designed to “save the unborn child”, yet the result is that not only this child, but a woman’s older children – and the woman herself – is harmed. In South Africa now, women are avoiding going to their local ante-natal centres for any health care during their pregnancy, for fear of a positive HIV test result. Therefore, not only those women who are HIV-positive, but also those who are not – and their children – are being harmed by these policies.

These are some of the reasons why I wanted to conduct these interviews.

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