(WOMENSENEWS)--Fadiga Kady has produced so many stories about the AIDS epidemic that some of her colleagues sorely joke that she'll end up catching the disease.
In the Ivory Coast, a Western African country where more than 5 percent of the total population and more than 10 percent of the adult population is infected with HIV, according to the United Nations, the joke itself is an illustration of how necessary Kady's work is. Talk of AIDS is largely taboo in Africa and, because infected people are afraid of being stigmatized and abandoned by their families if they reveal their condition, many choose to hide it, driving the virus's spread.
Kady, a 36-year-old public television reporter, began reporting on AIDS three years ago, when she saw that, despite her nation's efforts to inform its citizens about HIV, most people refused to face reality.
In Africa, Kady said, people don't believe in AIDS.
"So, it's difficult for us journalists to go to these people and tell them, 'No, AIDS exists. Here are the precautions you should take,'" Kady said in a phone interview.
Personal and Political Reasons for Reporting on AIDS
Kady's interest in covering women's issues pushed her to report on the disease, since more women live with HIV/AIDS in the Ivory Coast today than men. While 330,000 men were infected by the end of 1999, 400,000 women lived with the disease, according to the latest statistics from UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS.
"The weight of tradition, the fear of losing their husband, polygamy" all are reasons women are more at risk for the virus, and more likely to hide their infection.
She later found a personal reason to report on AIDS in the plight of her husband's niece, who came to live with Kady and her family about a year ago, when she discovered she was HIV-positive.
Her niece's infection made her even more sensitive to the need to inform people about the disease.
"Despite my knowledge about AIDS, I was still apprehensive about my kids, who are at home and who don't know what precautions to take," Kady said, recalling her worries when her niece first moved into her home.
Information is indeed vital. As a recent report by the UN and the World Health Organization put it, "although they are exceptionally vulnerable to the epidemic, millions of young African women are dangerously ignorant about HIV/AIDS."
Reporting Wasn't Enough for Kady
Education efforts around AIDS are scarce in the Ivory Coast, even though the public television channel for which Kady works just launched a contest last year that tests teen-agers on their knowledge about the disease and how to protect themselves from it.
This is why Kady found reporting on the issue wasn't enough to satisfy her need to help those battling the disease. With the help of other women reporters she met in 2000 during an online training in reporting on HIV/AIDS in Africa, sponsored by the International Women's Media Foundation, Kady created an international organization that teaches pregnant women about HIV and the likelihood of passing the virus on to their babies. The association informs mothers-to-be of the risks of not taking an HIV test during their pregnancy and refers them to health centers where, if they need it, they can receive medication both for themselves and to prevent them from transmitting HIV to their children.
Still, in light of the general lack of information on the topic, Kady's attempts to educate her audience through her reporting on AIDS are essential. The fact that she is a woman pushed her to report on this issue, according to her. "If I had not taken an interest in AIDS," she added, "no one would have done it, especially not men."
Despite Diligent Reporting, Her Stories on AIDS Heavily Edited
Working for a government-owned television station in a country not renowned for its freedom of the press makes it all the more challenging to honestly report on AIDS--and makes Kady's diligent reporting all the more daring.
Kady has often spent hours or days researching, reporting, writing her text, and editing, only to have the broadcast department tells her the report won't be shown unless she removes sensitive information. Once, the mayor of Abidjan, the economic capital of the country, complained to Kady's bosses after she did several reports on the city's filthy and unsanitary streets.
"It's a perpetual fight," Kady said, "It hurts. There comes a moment when you slam your fist down in anger and say, 'If that's the way it is, I won't do any more reports. Leave me alone!' But after a while, somehow, you say, 'If I want people to change, it's no use keeping my arms crossed.'"
Her frequent pieces on AIDS have not always made her popular with her colleagues, either.
"I think there is resignation. People say, 'no drug has been found yet to cure AIDS, so it's not necessary to keep talking about it again and again.'" Similar comments came from some of her colleagues, she said, which tends to limit the amount of reporting she can do on the issue.
Only 60 Percent of Nation's Girls Attend School
Even though Kady specializes in health and medical reporting, she makes a point of covering environmental issues and education as well. She's reported on the dismal literacy rates in the Ivory Coast, where sending a girl to school is considered a waste of money and only 60 percent of girls and 82 percent of boys go to primary school, according to the United Nations Population Fund's latest estimates. The consequence is that only 40 percent of women and 56 percent of men are literate.
Kady wants people to understand that women have a role to play in the development of a country, and that schooling is a necessary component.
"Educating a girl is educating a whole nation," she said.
Her paternal grandfather was very much against education, and didn't allow his children to go to school. He wanted to impose the same treatment on his grandchildren, too. But Kady's father defied her grandfather, sending all of his children--boys and girls--to school.
"The result of this trial of strength," Kady said, "is that I have a job I like; my little sister is a lawyer; my little brother has a liberal profession and the last one attends junior school. What more can I say?"
Kady didn't plan on being a journalist. Born in 1965 in Abidjan, Kady majored in French and literature while in high school and wanted to become a literature teacher. But her college application didn't arrive on time to be selected and she had to opt for another field. That's when she got into communications and attended the School of Press Attaches in Abidjan.
When she graduated, the national public television was launching a second channel and she became an intern there for five years before getting a full-time position as a reporter and anchor.
Working at the government-owned station--which has neither the resources nor the will to often take the kind of risks needed to produce controversial reporting--Kady has had to rely on her own ambition and drive to report the facts.
Once, one of the opposition parties, the Rally of the Republicans, held a protest to which only the foreign press was invited. None of her colleagues wanted to go, fearing the demonstration might turn violent, but Kady thought they ought to cover it. When she and her team arrived, the crowd pulled them out of their car and set it on fire. The protesters were ready to assault them when someone among them realized Kady was a TV anchor and let them go.
"When we want to do some reports, our bosses let us do them," Kady said. "Only, sometimes, it's at our own risk."
Laurence Pantin is a journalist based in Mexico City.