AIDS 2014: People living with HIV lead the response to discrimination

When Malawian Martha Dzuwa was diagnosed with HIV, people in her community labelled her “a dead fellow walking”. This is her story of how she changed their attitude.

When Malawian Martha Dzuwa was diagnosed with HIV, people in her community labelled her “a dead fellow walking”.

For Dzuwa, just like thousands of others living with HIV, stigma remains one of the biggest barriers to living a healthy and productive life. On Sunday (20 July), the largest global conference on AIDS gets underway in Melbourne, Australia – bringing together around 14,000 people to discuss the epidemic.

One of the objectives of the conference is to encourage debate around a post-2015 development agenda for HIV, including the cross cutting issues of gender-based violence, sexual health rights, and stigma and discrimination.

Dzuwa won’t be at the conference, but those who are would do good to bear her story in mind if they want to get serious about achieving an AIDS-free generation.

Stigma and discrimination

“Just like many other people living with HIV, I was denied a number of social amenities,” says Dzuwa, a widow with three children and two grandchildren, from Chibwana village in Nkhotakota district. “People said we should not benefit from the services because we were already dead.”

Dzuwa, 51, has since turned her life around by getting involved with Kavuula village support loan group, and makes enough money from farming to support herself and her family. It is one of ten such schemes established by Liwaladzi HIV Support Organization (LIHASO), and is funded by the Southern Africa AIDS Trust.

Through the project, known as ‘banking on veranda’, Dzuwa received financial training and is the treasurer of her village group: her home has become the village bank.

Women’s empowerment

In Dzuwa’s village the group has 40 members, of whom 26 are people living with HIV. Under Dwuza’s leadership the group raised 1.35 million Kwacha (US$ 3,430) last year. This created a high demand from women seeking economic empowerment.

“One of my children is pursuing a course in accounting at Skyway College in Lilongwe. I am able to pay the tuition fees without hassles,” says Dzuwa, who grows sugar cane, groundnut and maize.

She believes the changes in her community are sustainable, even if funding is phased out, thanks to improved financial knowledge and the growth in small businesses.

Gender and reproductive health

Another benefit of the project is a reduction in violence against women and children. According to Phillimon Banda, programme manager for LIHASO, the organisation was previously registering ten such cases a month, which has dropped to an average of three. With the success of the project, in most families both the man and woman are now self-sufficient, which reduces family disputes.

According to Banda, lack of knowledge on sexual and reproductive health and rights is another issue. Women find it difficult to raise sexual health issues in the presence of men and can only access sexual health services when a man authorises it.

“The project has contributed to addressing these problems. The perception of women who carry condoms as prostitutes is now diminishing,” said Banda.

Fighting stigma saves lives

As well as being treasurer of the village support loan group, Dzuwa is also an HIV peer educator. She provides information on preventing HIV infection and shares her own experience of positive living.

With Dzuwa spearheading the way, the community developed a unique initiative to fight stigma. She describes how people in Nkhotakota district faced discrimination for receiving a nutritional food popularly known as chiponde, or peanut. People gossiped that only those who were living with HIV received the food.

Dzuwa said: “The majority of people were reluctant to receive peanut for fear of being labelled as ‘dead fellow walking’. We had to face this head on because stigma and discrimination kills. Luckily, it worked and the situation is no longer the same: no one is being discriminated against for receiving peanuts. People have realised it is a nutritional food for everyone.”

LIHASO is now able to use the peanut food supplement to help protect the health of people living with HIV. Banda says: “We enrolled 36 people who were critically ill and gave them nutritional support [peanut]. Twenty-five people were treated and restored to good health and so we are using the same people to advocate for peanut. Now people do appreciate that it is a health food.”

The vision of the community programme committee for the AIDS 2014 conference is the greater involvement and meaningful engagement of people living with HIV. As Dzuwa’s story highlights, their involvement, locally and globally, is vital for an effective and sustainable response to HIV.

Read more about HIV and the post 2015 development agenda