It’s been known to cripple entire families, cut off economic productivity and destroy relationships.
In the past, the focus of NGOs in Malawi has been directed towards providing patient care to those affected by HIV, a necessary and dignified goal. But there’s one organization in Malawi that has expanded this focus to improve the socio-economic position of those who are not necessarily infected, but often bear the brunt of the epidemic: the wives and widows of AIDS sufferers.
The idea: to provide women with financial grants to start their own businesses and increase their standard of living.
What started as a small women’s support group, mostly widows, infected and affected with HIV, in Chirimba—a rural township outside Blantyre—Women for Fair Development (WOFAD) quickly took off. It has transformed into an organization focused on awareness campaigns, home-based care, group therapy, social counseling and female empowerment initiatives.
“We started going door to door to the widows and they were explaining more about what happened, how the man got sick and the symptoms,” says Matanya. The group surveyed the villages of Suya, Mdala, Mwachade and Chatha in Blantyre, discovering that 85 per cent of the widows were also HIV-positive.
At times it appears funerals outnumber weddings and baby showers here. Among survivors, the question of how to remain economically productive often looms large.
After talking to the widows, Matanya wondered to herself, “What next will these woman do—prostitute? They don’t do anything, they don’t do any business, they don’t have any way of getting income for their families.”
In a patriarchal society such as Malawi, women are often economically, socially and politically subservient to men. A woman’s role is to take care of the home, while a man’s role is outside the home. Wives are not only expected to be accountable to their husbands, they are financially and socially dependent too, typically due to a lack of education.
“Certain measures have to be put in place by women activists, like creating educational campaigns that show women how to be innovative and get out of poverty,” says Margaret Mvula, a Zimbabwean reporter working in Malawi. “They still live in a cocoon because of cultural restraints.”
With financial backing provided by the U.S. Embassy, WOFAD has been able to allot 20 women small grants to buy and sell timber as a business, says Jacob Mapemba, country director for World University Service of Canada (WUSC), which oversees the project. He says providing women access to income ultimately “reduces their dependency on men and increases their ability to make decisions.”
“We are the first women’s group in Malawi to do this type of business,” says Matanya proudly. The one-of-a-kind initiative, allows women combine their profits to acquire basic necessities such as food—which ultimately improves their health—shelter and clothing. The women also use the money to pay school fees for their children.
What really makes this program unique is that women initiated the project, manage it and determine the activities. According to Mapemba, other projects that focus on female empowerment often allow “men to take the lead in the decision making,” not women.
Previously, the females who participated in the timber project were living on approximately $5 CAD per day. They now bring home around $14 CAD daily—three times as much as a journalist makes in this country.
Even though women gain a newfound independence by participating in the project, discrimination against HIV-positive individuals still exists in Malawi. By promoting openness in declaring ones status and persuading others to go for testing, another WOFAD objective, the organization runs the risk of tearing apart relationships and alienating victims in a society where talking about the disease is taboo.
As the international community comes together this week to review the 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in New York, all eyes are on developing nations such as Malawi to see if they achieve certain goals, namely decreasing the percentage of women in informal employment and improving the knowledge around HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. WOFAD is helping some women in Malawi inch closer to achieving those goals.
The timber project may be a sufficient way to combat poverty issues, but as Mapemba explains, “combating discrimination requires change in mindset, attitude and knowledge of those involved.”