January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, and it’s an opportunity to raise awareness about how preventable and treatable this deadly disease is.

What many people don’t realize is more than 80 percent of cervical cases occur in developing countries, where more than 95 percent of women have never had a Pap smear test. In fact, more than 270,000 women die of cervical cancer in Africa each year.

Last year, 16-year-old Hariet Kangwa in Serenje, Zambia, heard a public announcement about PCI’s HIV counseling and testing (HTC) and cervical cancer screening services and decided to get tested.

In Zambia, PCI works with the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) through the U.S. Department of Defense HIV/AIDS Prevention Program to screen and treat women in remote areas for cervical cancer, making headway against the deadly epidemic.

Like many young women in her village, Harriet was forced to leave school and marry at a young age. Following her dreams to continue her education, she left the marriage, but unfortunately engaged in sexual activity for money to provide for herself.

Harriet said, “I was always haunted by my past behavior. I was sexually active at an early age. So, I never had peace of mind.”

Harriet tested negative for HIV thankfully, but the nurses found large pre-cancerous lesions on her cervix. Harriet couldn’t receive on-site treatment and was referred to a district hospital for further treatment.

PCI staff helped transport Harriet to the closest district hospital about 125 miles away from her village. Eventually, Harriet completed treatment and is now back to school.

Through PCI’s mobile HIV/AIDS counseling and testing services, thousands of women are receiving treatment on the spot, with referrals as needed for low-cost care, thereby protecting the lives of women and their families.

Any woman, regardless of her HIV status, may develop cervical cancer, but there’s an increased risk of developing cervical cancer if the female is HIV positive.

Pap smear tests, which detect cervical cancer, are available but the tests are expensive and require patients to make a number of visits to the clinic before a final diagnosis can be made. But many women like Harriet don’t have the money for testing or treatment, and the clinics are far from their homes.

Today, Harriet knows both her HIV and cervical cancer status and is empowered to make better decisions for herself and her future. A woman’s health is crucial to the well-being of her family and community.

Harriet plans to join PCI’s Women Empowerment (WE) savings and loans program in Zambia. Despite the challenges she’s faced in her young life, she remains optimistic and hopeful about her future.