20 November 2017
Breaking News

Facing stigma and discrimination head on

Written by  Brian Itai
Making Change Agents: Women's Rights Manager for ActionAid Malawi, Chikumbutso Ngosi Ndaferankhande, - Pic by Brian Itai Making Change Agents: Women's Rights Manager for ActionAid Malawi, Chikumbutso Ngosi Ndaferankhande, - Pic by Brian Itai

Lilongwe, September 20, 2017: Twenty-two-year-old Maureen Phiri from Lilongwe Monday, September 18 returns to school to complete her secondary education after she was forced to withdraw due to what she calls an ‘unhealthy environment’ she was subjected to. 

“At my previous school we were sharing double beds with mates which meant no opportunity for privacy. Everyone could see what a hostel mate was doing.

 “Due to the stigma that was associated with taking ARTs [antiretroviral treatment], it became too hard for me to adhere to my daily dosage and, eventually, I defaulted.

“This resulted in an infection reaction in my body and I got very sick as I had to bout tuberculosis and meningitis during the period,” Maureen said.

What proved as the last straw for Maureen to force her into the two-year exile from the school was the reception she got upon her return to school from some illness.  

“I was frequently being taken ill and at one time I was forced to go home. Word had reached the school that I had passed on and my friends looked so indifferent upon my return.

“None wanted anything to do with me. At this moment, I made a decision not to return after the term had finished,” she narrated her ordeal.

Being HIV positive is tough on its own; it appears it gets even tougher when your rights to enjoy full health friendly services are limited.

Maureen’s story shows it gets worse when you are a young female trying to pursue education while living in that status.

A woman activist, Anne Banda, said from her regular interaction with girls and young women living with HIV, it is easy to know from the experiences they share that they have almost given up on life with some even opting into prostitution.

“The environment in which these girls are operating is shaping them in a wrong way. There is a lot of stigma and discrimination in their communities both from within and outside. When people know that they are taking HIV drugs they are isolated.  

“When we seat in our offices and homes we have no idea what these girls and young women face in their environment be it in schools, homes and places of work.

The stories that they share are mostly shocking. We may think they are adhering to their dosage but most have given up due to other factors,” Banda said.

Another problem in this equation is lack of parent disclosure on the status of their children and the circumstances which led to them being infected.

Most parents have found it increasingly hard to open up to their children due to weak relationships between them and lack of confidence.

For instance, Maureen only knew about her HIV status when she was 17 years old.

“I had fallen ill and got admitted to a hospital and I was in very bad shape. That was the time when my mum gathered courage to tell me that I have HIV which got transmitted to me upon my birth,” said Maureen wearing a brave face.

The challenges that girls like Maureen face in their everyday life do not end there. For them to go and access ART in the school clinics is another hurdle. This routine only further deepens the element of stigma from their handlers.

Some weaker ones who feel keeping the ART’s on their own is tough, resort to asking a favour from their teachers but this approach is often rudely rebuffed. The teachers say they do not want anything to do with their condition.

Against such an environment, an international organisation ActionAid consolidated its efforts to work with a local network of Young People Living with HIV/Aids (Y-Plus) to fight stigma and instill confidence in girls like Maureen.

The organisation conducts trainings where the girls are enlightened on their rights with the view of empowering them to demand for their rights when they feel so. They are also taught the importance of living positively.

Regional Thematic Women’s Rights Manager for ActionAid in Malawi Chikumbutso Ngosi Ndaferankhande said, by working with girls like Maureen, they want to make them agents of change.

“We want to ensure that we create a safe space for them to share their challenges which are common across the country. Our intention is to empower them to implement specific advocacy actions to make sure that they influence change,” Ndaferankhande said.

Indeed after the encounter with ActionAid and Y-Plus, Maureen is now emotionally strong to stand stigma and discrimination.

Maureen said she is ready to be in school again because she has realized that she can no longer live her life through the lens of other people. She is now geared to rewrite her story.

“I want my story to be different; to realise the power that is within me and reach out for all the possibilities that life can give me as a normal being.

“All I want, therefore, is the support of everybody else around me to achieve my full potential,” Maureen said.

But can the battle against stigma and discrimination really be won?

Ndaferankhande admits that the battle against stigma and discrimination needs a systematic approach if it is to be won.

“Stigma is a complex issue; a behaviour problem which if we can have well coordinated efforts in place, we can manage to change the mindset of the people on the issue.

But it cannot just happen in a day because it involves a lot of behaviours and attitudes,” she said.

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