AFRICA: Malawi’s women stand up for healthcare rights under HIV/AIDS

Malawian women march to demand health rights in HIV/AIDS treatment
In October 2012 Malawian women marched ‘en masse’ to demand health rights with services and ART – antiretroviral drug therapies for HIV/AIDS treatment. Image: Maggie Mapondera/JASS

For the past four years, JASS has supported women activists and leaders to tackle issues that include HIV/AIDS treatment and its affect on women, including women’s bodies. The organization has worked to give women a ‘safe space’ to speak out about their needs and concerns in treatments.

“…I have found my voice, my power within and am able to use my voice on all the issues that affect women in my community,” says Kwangu Tembo Makhuwira, from COWHLA – Coalition of Women Living with HIV/AIDs, after she became a member of the program organized by JASS.

Women mobilizing at the community level

With an almost 2 hour drive east from Malawi’s urban capital city of 8888, the town of Chipoka has a medical facility clinic that serves the community’s HIV patients . In the past those who visited the clinic on Thursdays were sometimes told they cannot get their antiretroviral meds until the following Tuesday. Why?  Because there were no medical staff there working to keep the clinic open throughout the entire week.

Asking patients to return for meds the following Tuesday meant that they would skip their prescribed and ‘life-saving’ HIV med regimen for six days.

The women of COWHLA recognized that denying access to these medicines could impact the health of HIV patients, especially the majority of patients who are women. To help solve the problem COWHLA decided to use their collective power to do something to ensure that HIV+ women were able to access their full treatments.

First they talked to the medical staff at Chipoka’s HIV clinic, but is alleged that they did not co-operate. So the women of COWHLA went to a local Member of Parliament. Luckily he was in his office and immediately called the District Health Officer who was unaware the clinic was closed. Immediately the District Health Officer called the person in charge of the clinic and demanded that the clinic be re-opened.

“We [at COWHLA] knew our rights..and used our collective power…that’s why we took it in our hands to demand the access to ARVs [antiretrovirals],” says Makhuwira.  “If we hadn’t known, the women could have gone home without medication. But we knew that if we didn’t get a satisfactory answer at the health center, we could…identify who we could go to, to get help…[and] ensure our voices were heard,” she continued.

For many rural Malawian women, the struggle for antiretroviral treatment is deeply connected to women’s participation in decision-making at local levels. Empowering women to take charge of their own healthcare has helped to challenge inequality and discrimination by leveraging power for women with local Malawian chiefs and district-level leaders.

Activist and leader Ms. Tiwonge Gondwe affirms this in her experience as local chiefs come to the negotiating table with women in order to promote change.

Movement building as a solution to injustice does not come without challenges, says local advocates who work to help those with HIV/AIDS in the region.  It takes time, energy, strategic thinking and an awareness that the system will fight back again and again, they continue.

“The neglect and marginalization of women’s needs and circumstances in the context of HIV and AIDS is not simply a poor health and policy issue it is a violation of women’s rights,” adds Grace Malera from the Malawi Human Rights Commission.

The ‘Global Race to SAVE Lives Conference’, launched in October 2012, has now begun a national dialogue in Malawi with over 160 women activists, advocates and group leaders to debate the issues and needs facing HIV+ women throughout the region. The work to encourage the newest treatments available for women suffering from HIV/AIDS and to discontinue stavudine D4T treatment is part of ongoing discussions. Included in this important debate are Malawi’s national Ministry of Health, President Joyce Banda and the international aid community.

“We are going to challenge the government to make a policy to ensure a sustainable ART [antiretroviral treatment] regimen regardless of whether donors are here or not. And we also need the government to make sure that [HIV] positive women have their own resources like savings loans and fertilizers [for farming]. It’s our responsibility to fight for these things,” stressed rights activist Ms. Sibongile Chibwe

With solidarity, hope, and a shared vision of the future, Malawian women advocates and organizations are working to bring the kind of critical consciousness that allows women to reflect on their lives as they nurture what activists call “a power within.”
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HIV/AIDS in Malawi has impacted the region deeply, especially in rural communities, but special needs for women who are facing the disease have often been ignored or pushed to the side. Women are at higher risk of poverty with little resources to deal with the disease. Vulnerable to husbands who often ‘rule the home’ and are not always faithful to their wives, women often face a heightened risk of exposure to HIV/AIDS. This July 21, 2011 youtube video produced by FAO – Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations gives an overview of FAO’s work in Malawi in mitigating the impact of HIV and AIDS on rural communities and the agricultural sector.
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Additional research and information for this story has been provided by the editors at WNN – Women News Network.

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WNN Program Coordinator Maggie Hazvinei Mapondera, from Zimbabwe, is a recent Yale graduate who has worked to educate the public on searing issues surrounding today’s global slavery, human trafficking, and the denial of rights for global women. Maggie is especially passionate about finding ways to address the realities of the human experience through writing and other creative outlets. She is currently assisting WNN from Washington D.C., where she works as a program assistant for Just Associates (JASS), a global women’s advocacy network grounded in local and national action in more than 25 countries.

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