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Women rise up against Aids

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At 10.6 percent, Malawi’s HIV prevalence rate is decreasing. And though various interventions have managed to demystify the pandemic, men unlike women are still reluctant to go for HIV testing and counseling and of course disclose their HIV status.

Ironically, at 12.9 percent, the HIV prevalence rate among women remains the highest in the country against men’s 8.1 percent; the prevalence rate is even higher among women living in urban areas at 22.7 percent against men living in urban areas’ 7.1 percent.

Nevertheless, in a country where challenges associated with the virus have a female face, women living with HIV are still facing stigma and discrimination, if it is not self imposed then at least it is from the men folk.

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“When I was first diagnosed HIV positive in 2006 my husband left me with our three children and went for another woman.” Said Esther Mambele of Kamoto village Traditional Authority Dambe in Neno district.

Esther is among 3,000 women under the Coalition of Women Living with HIV in the district who regularly meet to discuss issues affecting their health and economic standing.

She is 37 years old and says life proved tough during the first days she discovered she had the virus.

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She is also among many women in the district who have been abandoned by their husbands after coming in the open about their status. This is in spite of men themselves shunning HIV testing and counseling and at the least being secretive about their status.

“I was in constant denial of the fact that I had the virus that causes Aids to the extent that I had to be admitted at a hospital for two months.” Esther said in an interview.

But her husband was the least of her troubles as she now had to fend for her three kids’ food, shelter and school fees. She then also had to cope with awkward looks on people’s faces whenever at the borehole, the market and even in church.

It was only after receiving counseling the same year that Esther began to start picking up the pieces of her life together and then started approaching life with confidence.

She then joined groups of women living with HIV in the district where she is now engaged in various activities that aim at improving their health and economic standing.

Apart from that, Esther and the other women with support from Action Aid engage the public especially young girls on dangers of premarital sex. The women have been trained in using the Hope kit models to civic educate the public on living positively.

Said Esther: “Getting together with fellow women living with HIV in groups such as COWLHA has given me hope and confidence that although I am positive, I can contribute towards the development of my country”.

The groups also engage in income generating activities through the village savings banks or Bank Mkhonde which have seen the women being empowered economically through the soft loans provided by the village banks.

And now a proud farmer and owner of an iron roofed house, Esther emphasizes on the need for people living with HIV to come out in the open and get together with others to share ideas if the battle against the pandemic is to be won.

Self denial according to Esther is denying people living with HIV a normal and productive life which could also be important to national development.

“There are still most people out there who are reluctant to go for HIV testing let alone disclosing their HIV status, this development is causing deaths which could otherwise be avoided.” She said.

With the statistics showing more women have been affected by the pandemic perhaps it is not surprising why men are not that actively involved in the fight against the pandemic at community level. These indicators could also be the reason there is no grouping with the sole purpose of bringing together men living positively.

Coordinator for Coalition of Women Living with HIV (COWLHA) in Neno, Gertrude Daluni, attests to the fact that most men in the district are still failing to disclose their HIV positive status even to their wives.

According to Daluni, these married men would rather take the life prolonging Anti retroviral drug privately than tell their wives a development which is placing lives of women such as Esther and efforts to combat HIV at family level into jeopardy.

“Most men here are completely shunning HIV testing and counseling and we have had cases where for unknown reasons, men fail to disclose their status even to their wives though they know they are positive.

And to make matters worse because of this secrecy, they continue to have unprotected sex with their unsuspecting wives.” Said Daluni.

Daluni also said this development coupled with stigma and discrimination is making it even harder for women to come out in the open about their status and in the long run leading to further spread of the pandemic.

On people living with HIV getting together, Daluni said though men are still shunning the groups, women are still actively participating.

She said apart from engaging in sensitizing people in the district on dangers of unprotected sex, the women are also being encouraged to use supplements such as Aloe Vera, ginger and lemons which she said boost the immunity.

“As a group, we encourage women to use locally found herbs such as Molinga and other supplements which have the ability to boost their immunity and appetite.” Daluni said.

Apart from their nutrient value, Daluni said the women are also cashing in on the herbs by growing and adding value to them for sale in other districts.

But she maintained lack of male involvement in HIV prevention initiatives is still derailing efforts to reduce spread of the virus saying in a Malawian setting women still have to seek the approval of their husbands in order to participate in any activities especially those to do with HIV.

Apparently, government says it has put in place many initiatives to encourage active participation of men in the fight against the pandemic.

Ministry of health spokesperson Adrian Chikumbe stated in an earlier interview that the Voluntary Medical Male Circumcision campaign currently being implemented in the country is part of efforts by government and its partners to involve men in the fight against HIV.

Under the campaign, at least 60,000 males between ages 15 and 49 will be circumcised.

“As government we are also embarking on a male involvement in prevention of Mother to Child Transmission where we are encouraging men to escort their wives during pregnancy to antenatal care facilities where they both undergo HIV testing and counseling.” Chikumbe said.

This initiative will help women like Esther prevent transmitting the virus to their unborn baby in the event that both parents are found with the virus and through the counseling will help those who are negative stay negative.

Said Chikumbe: “We understand that most women in the country are unable to bargain with their husbands on their sexual reproductive rights hence this intervention which to an extent will encourage men undergo Voluntary testing and counseling together with their pregnant wives.”

But regardless of all these efforts, groups of people living with HIV remain critical to the fight against further spread of the virus which causes Aids.

According to officials, getting together in groups also enhances compliance to medication apart from promoting positive living among people living with HIV.

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