Women Lead the Way in the Struggle Against Swaziland’s HIV Crisis
Friday, October 28, 2011
Siphiwe Hlophe’s shrewd, enterprising spirit is apparent within moments of meeting her. “You work for Comic Relief?” she says. “Brilliant! I might walk away from this meeting with some money.” Hlophe, a Swazi woman living with HIV, wants the money for the charity she directs, Swaziland for Positive Living (Swapol), which supports rural communities affected by HIV.
Her resourcefulness is striking in a country where women are denied the right to register property, prohibited from opening a bank account or starting a business without the permission of their husbands, and paid 71% less than men. Yet it is not unique. Similarly enterprising women across Swaziland – where 31% of the female population is HIV positive, compared with 20% of men (a figure that rises to 49% for women aged 24-29) – are leading the HIV fight-back.
These women fight a tireless tripartite battle against HIV, the stigma it places on them, and their inferior status in Africa’s last absolute monarchy. Hlophe, whose husband ended their marriage on grounds of “dishonour” after she contracted the virus from him, has conquered all three.
Kathryn Llewellyn, the founder of Positive Women, which co-funds Swapol, said: “Extraordinary women provide safe havens for women rejected by their families. Despite the fact that women are disproportionately infected and affected, or maybe because of this fact, they’re not being overwhelmed. They’re uniting and fighting back.”
Some cross the border to South Africa. Thandi Maluka, of South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign, points out they’re escaping a country where, in 2009, “one MP suggested branding people with ’HIV’, so they cannot infect others … they believe women carry the virus”.
Hlophe stayed put. She founded Swapol in 2001, along with four other rural women; all had been recently diagnosed, and were determined to resist destitution and ostracism.
Two have since died, but Hlophe continues, empowering Swazi women living with HIV through programmes that transform them into businesswomen. On a visit to a rural neighbourhood care point, I met six women making and selling peanut butter to fund their village orphanage. In another rural community, I encountered a crop-seller; Swapol gives her seeds to grow vegetables, helping her to sell surplus stock to locals.