IFRC


People living with HIV fighting stigma and discrimination

Published: 1 December 2014 21:12 CET

While Malawi remains among the top ten countries in sub-Saharan Africa for people living with HIV, the country has seen a significant decrease in both new HIV infections and AIDS related deaths since 2005. These figures have declined by 41 and 51 per cent respectively. The decrease in new infections is evidence that, with improved access to HIV prevention and treatment services, an end to AIDS is possible.

In the fight against HIV and AIDS, community-led initiatives are key to expanding and sustaining access to life-saving testing and treatment services. But treatment is not only about increasing access to medicine alone; the non-clinical barriers to service access – cultural perceptions, stigma and discrimination – are often the most critical ones.

When Grace Mwanza’s husband Edison died of an AIDS-related illness in 2005, she was left alone to care for their four children, the youngest of whom had not yet had a first birthday. After Edison’s death, Grace and her children faced stigma and discrimination.

Grace joined a support group in Lilongwe city that is run by the National Association of People Living with HIV and AIDS in Malawi. It was here she learnt about psychosocial support.

Inspired by the group, Grace and with three other HIV positive women from neighbouring villages founded the Kataila support group for people living with HIV. Grace said the women established the group because they could see the relationship between stigma and the continuing rise in infections. “Men and women were either bed ridden or dying of AIDS-related conditions on a daily basis. Even though antiretroviral therapy was accessible, many people shunned HIV testing for fear of being discriminated against,” she said. “I was concerned that people opted to suffer silently and by the time they went for testing they were terminally ill.

“The nearest health facility, Mitundu Health Centre, is 25km from our village and many people couldn’t afford a return bus fare. Those few with bicycles could ride. The easiest option for pregnant women was to attend antenatal clinics at the traditional birth attendants (TBAs) within the community.” As a result of this, Grace said, many infants with HIV positive mothers were contracting the virus during delivery due to poor hygienic practices. Furthermore, some men were stopping their pregnant wives from going to attend antenatal clinics for fear of having to undergo a test themselves. “I felt a desire to raise community awareness and lobby against all this. Gladly our traditional leaders were supportive.”

When Mlare Mission Hospital started to distribute corn-soy flour to encourage pregnant women to come to the antenatal clinics for HIV testing, Grace and her friends seized the opportunity and started marketing the Kataila support group through the health centre. Within a few months, the group’s membership swelled. Today the support group has 54 members and raises awareness by sharing personal stories, drama and traditional dances.

Grace’s ambitions do not end here. In 2011, the group established a partnership with the Malawi Red Cross Society. In collaboration with the National Society, the group has ventured into income generation activities, gardening and micro enterprise projects such as nanny goats pass-on scheme. With the proceeds from her husband’s estate and a loan through the Red Cross, Grace has bought a cow which provides milk that she sells at the dairy market. The two nanny goats she received from Malawi Red Cross Society have reproduced twice, and she has passed on the kids to waiting members of the group.

The Kataila support group for people living with HIV is testament to how the engagement and inclusion of the community at large, people living with HIV and the community health volunteers in all stages of the treatment is an efficient and effective strategy to close the gap in access to HIV services and adherence to treatment.




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