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Maggie Hazvinei Mapondera with Anna Davies-van Es – WNN Features

Rural women in Malawi sometimes travel for hours to access healthcare and reach HIV/AIDS treatment centers. Image: DFID

(WNN) Lilongwe, MALAWI, AFRICA: For women across the African nation of Malawi, the new appointment of President Joyce Banda is an exciting indicator of change. With President Banda’s history as an advocate, rural African women often caught in the cycle of severe poverty and hardship hope that this new president will be a sympathetic ally in the fight for women, and their families, to receive greater access to education, healthcare, opportunity and human rights.

The treatment of HIV and AIDS related illness is showing global advances and improvement. UNAIDS has revealed that 34 million people worldwide, including children, are now living, and surviving, with AIDS. This figure is up from the 29.4 million documented cases of survival with AIDS in 2001.

But out of the 34 million people living worldwide with AIDS, a large proportion, approximately 61,000 orphans, are living without parents in Malawi, due to AIDS related deaths.

The antiretroviral  treatment (ART) that is currently and widely used in Malawi for HIV positive women is D4T.  But advocates inside Malawi say that HIV+ women are being “poisoned” by the treatment which contains stavudine, a highly toxic drug that can cause fatal lactic acidosis, especially for pregnant women. Lactic acidosis is a condition that can cause the bloodstream to become too inundated with lactic acid crowding out oxygen in the blood that can result in death.

Stavudine can also cause severe and fatal pancreatitis when combined without proper management with other HIV/AIDS treatments. An often dismissed impact with the drug shows that stavudine can also disfigure a woman’s body, as well as cause episodes of peripheral neuropathy.

Other side effects for the drug can also produce changes in a woman’s body that include severe belly swelling (as if pregnant), and severe loss of fat on the face, arms, legs and buttocks.  Women are often more likely to suffer more stigma and discrimination than men under these conditions as the drug causes visible physical changes and disfigurements impacting a Malawian women’s sense of beauty, fertility and sexuality.

“Even men, they will say that they don’t want wives who have no buttocks and misshapen bodies like ours,” shares Malawian HIV/AIDS activist Esnat Mbandambanda.

To improve HIV/AIDS healthcare in the region, President Banda’s government has pledged to roll-out distribution of a new antiretroviral (ARV) drug – tenofovir disoproxil  fumarate – recommended by the World Health Organization as a therapy that may prevent the onset of HIV.

Tenofovir is set to be made available for all Malawians sometime during 2013. But advocates inside the region are cautious about ‘easy’ claims made by the government for new and improved health treatments.

Even though the government did receive 350 million dollars in USD funding from the United States last summer to invest further in energy solutions for the region, Malawi actually may not have the resources available to fully support a sustained regimen of change in the treatment of HIV/AIDS. The ‘new’ tenofovir drug therapy, while it may be more effective, is also more expensive.

Tenofovir therapy does have its own set of side effects, although they are considered better than other drug therapies for HIV patients. Use of tenofovir in some cases may prove lethal to some patients as any lack of strict adherence in taking the drug may result in immunity against the drug’s effectiveness, which might prove fatal in mismanaged cases of HIV/AIDS.

“If we campaign for better ARVs, will the government sustain that regimen? What are we as Malawians supposed to do?” asks Malawian women’s human rights activist Ms. Sibongile Chibwe.

Worldwide the virus that causes HIV/AIDS affects more women than men. Young women are 1.6 times more likely to carry HIV/AIDS than young men, says a joint report by UNAIDS, UNFPA – United Nations Population Fund and UNIFEM, which is now part of the larger UN agency called UN Women.

This decades long viral epidemic has also caused many changes in African rural communities as well as urban areas, especially in Malawi where stigma and persecution follows those who are diagnosed HIV+.

“The HIV/AIDS epidemic has had a debilitating impact across the country,” says the 2011 report by UNAIDS. “The Malawian government estimates that 924,800 of its citizens are living with HIV/AIDS, 57% of whom are women.”

In the search for progress in Malawi women are now organizing to claim their rights to better health and a better life.  Global advocates JASS -Just Associates along with local partners inside Malawi, including the MANERELA+ – Malawi Network of Religious Leaders Living With and Affected by HIV/AIDS and community-based organization WOFAD – Women for Fair Development are working together to build a strategy to “prioritize women’s needs.”

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