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MEDIA: Fashion Advice and Info for HIV-Positive Women

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Mar 23 2009 (IPS) - The colourful new magazine of the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS (ICW) in Latin America and the Caribbean has a modern look and provides not only information but articles on fashion and entertainment. It is also the perfect size to carry in a purse.

“Magazines in doctors’ offices often show HIV-positive women in the role of victims, leading tragic lives. But the ones I know are happy, full of energy, and living healthy smoking-free lives, keeping close track of their immune systems,” María Mansilla, the editor in charge of content for the publication “No estás sola” (You Are not Alone) told IPS.

The name of the magazine emerged from the slogan of an ICW Latina campaign targeting pregnant women living with HIV, who often find themselves alone against a hostile or indifferent medical system.

The idea was to provide them with information to prevent mother-to-child transmission of the AIDS virus, and to urge women in that situation to join the network.

“What we are trying to do through the magazine is to break with the weepy approach, where there is only room for complaints or for the scientific-medical perspective,” said Mansilla.

“We want to talk about how girls in different countries prepare for their big 15th birthday bash, as much as about the lack of work. We have readers who were diagnosed 20 years ago and others who just found out, so the agenda has to be balanced, and built by all of us together,” she added.

The magazine, which was released in late February, is distributed in the 20 Latin American countries where ICW Latina has national chapters. It was an idea of the regional secretariat, headed by Argentine activist Patricia Pérez.

ICW was established at a global level in 1992 in response to the lack of support, services and information for women living with HIV/AIDS, and to advocate for their rights. It has representatives in all regions, and is led by and made up of HIV-positive women.

A main focus of ICW Latina programmes is to fight stereotypes.

Two years ago, the network shook global opinion when it published, with support from the United Nations children’s fund, UNICEF, a report on girls and adolescents living with HIV/AIDS in the region, who gave their personal accounts of what it is like to live with the diagnosis.

The stated aim of the report was to fight “loneliness, stigma and discrimination.”

For now the new magazine, “No estás sola”, will be a quarterly publication, although in the future it could come out more frequently, journalist Daniel Barberis, ICW Latina media officer, told IPS.

“Our lives tend to be portrayed in a stereotypical manner, tainted in black, with overly tragic tones,” says the editorial in the first edition.

It goes on to underscore the need to stay informed, in order to “live well and enjoy good health.”

“Information is a right,” says the magazine’s chief editor, Patricia Pérez.

With a colourful cover showing a young woman gazing out to sea, “No estás sola” starts out by paying homage to the families and friends of people living with HIV, “those who stayed, helping to make life go on, and to digest and deal with the diagnosis,” while stressing the importance of “loving support” for people in this situation.

The article, in which women and their family members talk about their own situations, backed up by scientific studies that demonstrate the importance of such support to improve treatment, is illustrated with photos by French photographer Joelle Dollé that have been previously exhibited in France and Spain.

The images show two or three people, smiling and healthy, along with their first names and professions. In each case, it is mentioned that one of them is living with HIV. But it is impossible to discern which one.

The magazine also has a section for girls and adolescents. Youngsters who take part in meetings organised by ICW Latina express their hopes and desires: “to not be discriminated against,” “for talks on HIV/AIDS to be held in every school,” “to be able to help encourage the girls not to be overcome by a sense of desperation.”

Uruguayan jewelry-maker Maureen Brenson talks about her life by responding to a short questionnaire on the difficulties she has faced, as well as her projects and dreams. One of the questions is “what would you do if you won the lottery?”

Mansilla said ICW Latina invited design and media professionals to help work on the magazine, which she said is not something that NGOs frequently do.

“The idea was not to produce a publication showing what our organisation does, but to have a new tool for our work,” she said.

“The women who belong to the network were grassroots activists, without experience in organising, and they have been empowered. Many today are leaders who are seeking to transmit their messages in creative, alternative ways, with music, songs, and the commitment of artists,” she said.

“These are nonconventional ways of raising awareness and informing people,” she added.

The magazine includes an interview with Eugenia Podestá, regional coordinator of Vital Voices, an international NGO founded in 1997 by Hillary Clinton (now U.S. secretary of state) when she was first lady, that trains and empowers women leaders around the world.

The first edition of “No estás sola” also has sections of letters to the editor, medical advice, although from a non-traditional approach – different models of pill boxes, news on medications – and even fashion.

Argentine designer Maria Cher gives practical advice on how to make the best of body shape changes that are often a side effect of taking potent combinations of antiretroviral drugs.

The most common of these side effects is lipodystrophy, in which body fat is distributed in a different manner. Symptoms are a swollen belly and breasts, and loss of tissue from the face, arms and legs.

Cher provides ideas for women experiencing these body fat changes on how to remain fashionable, while feeling comfortable with their changing bodies.

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