Feature story

Scaling up stigma-free services for women in Egypt

11 April 2019

When the family and neighbours of Salma Karim (not her real name) found out that she was living with HIV they chased her out of her home. With nowhere to go, she was forced to leave her two young children behind. This is not an uncommon story in Egypt. One in five people living with HIV report being forced to leave their homes by their landlords, family or neighbours.

High levels of stigma and discrimination are one of the key factors driving new HIV infections in the country, which doubled between 2010 and 2016. Women and adolescent girls are often the most vulnerable. Societal norms, gender inequality, economic dependence, legal discrimination and harmful practices affect them disproportionately, making them more vulnerable to HIV and facing greater levels of stigma and discrimination in the event of HIV infection.

In 2016, UNAIDS in partnership with the Egyptian Ministry of Health and Population joined efforts towards a gender-transformative response to the HIV epidemic. With funding from the Dutch government, a pilot project called Enhancing Sexual and Reproductive Health of Women Living with and Affected by HIV was launched. Three years later, the pilot has reached double its intended beneficiaries with stigma-free quality sexual and reproductive health services.

“I lost my first child as I didn’t know I had HIV,” explains Nour Tarek (not her real name). It was in one of the pilot project sites in Giza that she received the support to realize her reproductive rights free from discrimination. “I followed up with the doctor in the hospital and I became pregnant again.”

Thanks to the antiretroviral medicine she received while pregnant, her baby Mona (not her real name) was born HIV-negative. “I still have to test again until she is older to make sure she is fine,” explains Ms Tarek.  

Having proved its success, the pilot project is now being scaled up to a third of the country’s governorates. The aim is to deliver high-quality sexual and reproductive health and HIV services for 1300 women living with HIV and 3000 women at higher risk of acquiring HIV. Its focus on building the capacity of health-care providers and civil society organizations will be key to avoiding future stigma and discrimination, which is reported to lead one in four people living with HIV in Egypt not to disclose their HIV status when seeking care.

During his visit to Cairo on 9 April, the Executive Director of UNAIDS, Michel Sidibé, and the Ambassador of the Netherlands to Egypt, Laurens Westhoff, discussed the expansion of the project. Implemented through a new three-year Dutch grant, the scaled-up services will complement national efforts to achieve Egypt’s ambitious new National AIDS Strategy 2018–2022 and the Sustainable Development Goals.