This past March was designated women's month in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In order to close it out on a high note, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams in DRC did something a little unusual. Along with Médecins du Monde and the Réseau National Des Organisations d'Assise Communautaires des PVV (the RNOAC, a national network of community-based organizations that assists people with HIV/AIDS), they organized a fashion show on March 30 that featured 12 women living with HIV/AIDS. The goal was threefold: to fight discrimination against people living with HIV, to alert the public to the tragic lack of access to treatment in the country, and to show what is possible when treatment is made available.
As in many countries, people living with HIV/AIDS in DRC face a variety of challenges. They struggle to access the antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) they need for treatment and other medications and screening services that are often difficult to afford. "I went untreated for three months because I couldn't afford to take the CD4 test," says Féza Ndarabo, one of the women who participated in the fashion show. "I had to pay the $15 in $5 installments. I was weak, but I had no other options."
Socially, HIV is still stigmatized and leads to ostracism from communities, even families. Clarisse Mawika, who is currently the activities manager for the RNOAC, says the revelation of her HIV status led to almost immediate discrimination. "The family thought that I would be a burden," she says. "People said 'Clarisse is a witch.'"
The fashion show was designed to send the message that with proper treatment, people with HIV/AIDS can live a normal life and even flourish.
Before the show, a fashion professional helped the “models” prepare. They were then dressed in designs created by the Amicale des Stylistes de Kinshasa (AMSTY), a local organization of fashion professionals and an event partner. The clothes prominently featured the colors and emblems of the fight against HIV/AIDS, and the models also wore original accessories and jewelry on loan from Atelier Elikya—most of which were produced by women living with HIV/AIDS—and inspired by the emblematic red ribbon.
In front of a supportive, cheering audience, the women walked with poise and dignity, pausing at the end of the runway to deliver short messages in proud, confident voices.
"Do I look ill to you?" one woman said.
"I've been living with HIV for 14 years and I'm doing great, thanks to ARVs!" another announced.
"I've broken the silence," said a third. "Now it's up to you to make my voice heard!"
In a poignant contrast, two young street prostitutes spoke from behind a white curtain that protected their anonymity. Hearing only their voices and seeing only their shadows, the audience listened to them speak about the discrimination and violence they face daily. Like most who work the streets, they were infected with HIV after repeated rapes and were driven to prostitution to survive.
The prevention worker with the Bomoyi Bwa Sika center, which is supported by Médecins du Monde and provides support to street children living with HIV/AIDS in Kinshasa, called for greater protection for these particularly vulnerable young women. "We invite the authorities and all people of good will to take a caring approach to street children living with HIV/AIDS and to all HIV-positive people, because they have a right to live, too," she pleaded.
MSF's medical coordinator and several representatives of local NGOs also spoke out against the lack of ARVs in DRC. They called on donors and Congolese authorities to provide treatment to those in greatest need and to make DRC a priority in the global fight against HIV.
Indeed, the average life expectancy for people who need treatment is only three years. An estimated 300,000 people in DRC fall into that category in DRC, which means that unless treatment is made available more widely, at least 300,000 people will likely never feel the pride and empowerment the women who walked in the fashion show felt that night, thanks to the treatment they received and the support of the community around them.