“The biggest crime I committed is revealing my sero-status,” said Esther Changa, 55, who tested positive for HIV in 2005.
“The biggest crime I committed is revealing my sero-status,” said Esther Changa, 55, who tested positive for HIV in 2005. “Now society is doing everything possible to keep me behind – denying me loans, employment and many other benefits that others have.”
Changa is the chairperson of Tiwasunge Knowledge and Counselling Organisation – a community-based organisation in Malawi that helps improve the livelihoods of its members living with HIV.
“I used to do a lot of piecework, including weaving and knitting clothes, but now my strength has eroded and I am not myself anymore,” she said. Changa attributed her decrease in strength to her age and the difficulty she has experienced while trying to earn a living.
“I need nutritious food if am to stay healthy, and this is only possible when I have money. A balanced meal helps a lot.”
Changa believes that people living with HIV are denied access to loans from micro-finance programmes because the communities administering the loans do not believe they will live long enough to repay them. She has also found it difficult to find steady work because her managers have not understood when she falls sick.
Attempts to alleviate the problem
Master Mphande, executive director of Malawi’s National Association of People Living with HIV/AIDS, said that the country has managed to reduce new infections, stigma and discrimination, and to introduce new antiretroviral drugs; however, Malawi has neglected the livelihoods welfare of people living positively.
“People living with HIV are able to access treatment, and their health is improving, but for them to live more healthily they need livelihood intervention so they have access to well-balanced meals,” said Mphande.
Edith Nkawa, principal secretary responsible for nutrition and HIV in the Office of the President and Cabinet, explained what programmes the government runs to protect the livelihoods of employees living with HIV. “The government introduced a policy where civil servants living with HIV or AIDS get extra money,” she said. “In other departments, we give out half of the money in the form of food.”
She stressed that they are unable to reach out to every Malawian who needs help but said that the government is working on a strategy to help more people, since only civil servants are currently supported. The problem, according to Nkawa, is lack of resources.
She hailed the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI), a non-governmental organisation, for its work to supply nutritious food to people living with HIV through community organisations.
In Malawi, the United Methodist church is one organisation helping people living with HIV to get food. The church distributes food to people in need and, at one point, worked with Tiwasunge Knowledge and Counselling Organisation. Missionaries came from the United States and they worked with the church to help the organisation.
“The missionaries taught us some computer skills,” recalled Esther Changa. “I can’t explain how excited I was being so close to a computer for the first time. They also taught us to make rings and later sold them for us. We used to make money and support ourselves.”
However, the excitement was short lasting since all the projects ended when the missionaries left. And, though people learnt how to make rings, they do not know where they were sold, so it is difficult to market them.
Taking care of one’s own needs
John Nyadaufe, communications officer for the United Methodist Church in Blantyre, said: “It is distressing when you go around seeing people living with HIV struggling to find food.”
He said though they try to help, there are many people whom the organisation cannot reach. But as Esther Changa notes, what they need is not so much food to be distributed but initiatives to help them take care of their own needs. She said loan facilities are not enough since the loans have to be paid back in a short period.
“The government should introduce loan schemes to people living with HIV that are flexible and easy to pay back,” she said. “That way, the issues of struggling to get food may become an issue of the past.”
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Image caption: People shopping at a Ugandan market