I was coming up to my 32nd birthday and excited to be having a baby. My GP, who knew I had worked in Africa, suggested that I should have an HIV test along with the regular tests in pregnancy. I felt completely fit and well. The other results were fine, but not the test for HIV.
Nowadays, over 99% of children are born HIV-free if their mother is on medication. But in 1992, if I went ahead with the pregnancy it was feared it would affect the baby’s health, or my health, leaving my older children motherless. Having an abortion because of a life-threatening illness is horrible. Testing positive for HIV in 1992 was a death sentence; along with the grief of losing the baby, I thought I was going to die.
Even with the fantastic support of my husband, who remains HIV negative, I was completely devastated. I remember walking down Regent Street thinking the best thing I could do was to just throw myself under the next bus.
However, that evening I went to meet a group of other women with HIV. The woman who was leading the group said that she’d been diagnosed in prison. The warden came and opened the hatch in her door, said, “oh by the way you’re HIV positive”, then just slammed the hatch shut. She decided to get out of prison, get off drugs, and make sure that no other woman would have to go through that experience. If she turned her life around, how dare I take the easy route out to go and think about suicide? I, too, had to sort myself out and go and do something for other women. I’ve now started the Salamander Trust, which works on HIV and women’s rights.
A third of people with HIV in the UK are women, and hardly any of us are open about our status, because of the horrifying stigma. When my two children were at school, if ever the word HIV would come up, other kids would say “GAYS! AFRICANS! JUNKIES!”… there was such racism and homophobia, criticising anyone of a different lifestyle without any sense of solidarity.
The stigma is there in religious communities too. From some, I’ve had fabulous support. Sadly, from others, there has been very little understanding. There’s a great Ugandan priest with HIV who says: “religion brings out the best and worst in us”. I’ve felt drawn to Buddhism over the last few years, but in my experience, most people who don’t have a faith still have an extremely firm set of ethical principles.
Alice's story is featured at London's Museum of Motherhood, due to launch at the V & A Museum of Childhood on Thursday 21st June, along with a book. All revenue from ticket and book sales will go to fund Proshanti, a charity supporting maternal healthcare work in Bangladesh. You can buy tickets here for the launch and follow them on facebook and twitter.
You can also win a pair of tickets to the launch by joining our next mums' Make Date. Join us on twitter on 20 June 8.30pm – 9.30pm BST (other timezones here) using the hashtag #somum for a chat and a doodle: Museum of Mum. To see what a Twidoodle's all about, check out our first ever attempt last month... Hope to see you there!