Reclaiming rights from the jaws of HIV

 

There is no denying that there is a cat-mouse relationship between HIV and Aids and human rights.

Whenever HIV and Aids strikes, rights suffer.  Vulnerable groups such as poor women become the hardest hit.

Forty-one-year-old Marita Kasonda from Traditional Authority (T/A) Khombedza in Salima knows well what HIV and Aids can do to the rights of a woman.

Kasonda always lived a normal, sociable life—enjoying her rights like any other citizen. The year 2005, however, proved a turning point for her.

Kasonda (L) and her colleagues displaying items at a Candlelight Memorial ceremony held in Salima recently

“When I broke the news to my husband that I have been diagnosed HIV positive, it was like I had dug my own grave,” she says.

“He beat me up and sent me packing, accusing me of prostitution and infecting him with the virus that causes Aids. That was the end of my marriage”.

Unfortunately for her, even her relations and the community did not take the news kindly. Her immediate family members no longer showed her love they used to.

Fellow women started shunning her. Community leaders such as chiefs and area development committees (ADCs) started sidelining her in social protection initiatives such as Farm Input Subsidy Program (Fisp) and Public Works Programme (PWP).

“They said I didn’t have enough energy to do any developmental work”, she says.

Kasonda was just one of the women in T/A Khombedza, let alone Salima, who had suffered massive human rights violations due to their HIV status.

Stigma and discrimination became their boon companion, as the enjoyment of their right to development became a far-fetched dream.

However, in 2008, women living with HIV in T/A Khombedza started seeing light.

Stephen Lews Foundation (SLF), a Canadian-based charitable organisation, in partnership with Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), embarked on “Promoting the Rights of Women Living with HIV and Aids through Social and Economic Empowerment” project.

It sought to help women living openly with HIV and Aids reclaim their rights and start re-building their lives.

Kasonda and a hundred others did not hesitate to join the project.  It was a dream come true for them.

Under the project, the women formed a support group. Through the group, they have been trained in human rights, HIV and Aids, gender and advocacy. Such capacity building trainings have helped women counter stigma and discrimination in society.

Through such initiatives, women have become more aware of their rights and started demanding and defending them.

“With these trainings, we have been able to actively engage community members and local leaders on our rights and the obligations they have towards our rights,” says Joyce Phiri, another beneficiary of the project.

Thanks to the vigorous community awareness and advocacy campaigns, women living with HIV and Aids are now being considered in development initiatives such as social cash transfer, Fisp and PWP.  Even cases of stigma by the family members and the public have nose-dived.

“At least we can now associate freely with everyone, including women not infected by HIV and Aids,” says Kasonda.

The enthusiasm and momentum the project had on the women in T/A Khombedza led to its extension to other T/As, namely Kalonga within Salima and Kalolo and Chiseka in Lilongwe Rural. Over 300 women are now directly benefiting from the project.

Apart from training the women living with virus in human rights, gender and HIV and Aids, the project has equipped women in all the four T/As with business management skills. Such skills have enabled the women chart their own economic empowerment path.

As one way of contributing to their economic empowerment, Thandizo Phwiyo, CHRR project coordinator says the organisation has been giving women farm inputs such as seeds and has also introduced a goat pass-on programme.

Through such initiatives, women have educated their children, built decent houses and met the daily needs of their families, thereby living healthier and energetic lives.

However, the breakthrough of the project was the donation of four maize mills in 2014 to all the four T/As. The maize mills, planted in the typical rural setting, have enabled women to generate income while reducing the distance people used to travel.

Smith Mnenula, Salima district Aids coordinator, says it is interventions such as the ones championed by CHRR that have led to the reduction of HIV prevalence in the district.

According to the Demographic Health Survey (2015-2016), only three percent of those between the ages of 15 and 49 are HIV positive, a remarkable reduction from the nine percent which was recorded in 2004 by the same survey report.

Despite the successes, the project is struggling to reach out to more women living with HIV and Aids in the districts of Lilongwe and Salima due to limited resources. As for Kasonda and her support group, the storm is almost over.

 

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