To mark International Women’s Day, the Welsh National Assembly will tomorrow [8 March 2011] hear from AIDS activist Siphiwe Hlophe about her campaign in Swaziland.
The Western Mail newspaper in Wales, UK, today published this account of the reality of life with HIV for women in Africa.
The reality of life with HIV for women in Africa
by Siphiwe Hlophe
I had worked most of my life against a system, which weighted education towards men, so it was particularly pleasing to be recognised academically and receive a scholarship from France.
One of the stipulations of the scholarship was that I undergo a health examination, including an HIV/Aids test.
It wasn’t something I’d ever thought of doing or needed, but I did it without question.
A few weeks later, I had no scholarship or place at Bradford University and my life had changed irrevocably, overnight.
I had gone from being a woman with life prospects to a woman with a death sentence.
Coming to terms with the fact that I had contracted HIV was difficult enough, but the stigma attached to a woman having it in Swaziland was almost too much to bear.
I decided not to tell my husband immediately, fearing his reaction – I had seen so many other women badly treated and blamed for bringing HIV “into the community”.
But it was impossible to keep this secret from him for long and, soon, my worst fears were realised.
I lost not only my husband, but also my family and my home. The discrimination I faced in those first few years and in my own community, was horribly common. I had no idea where to turn – I was heartbroken.
But education had always been my passion and my strength and it was this that enabled me to change my life and change others’ too.
I remember as a young child walking barefoot to the offices of the missionaries, who were buying shoes and paying for school fees, to ask them to educate me.
The education I received as a child has made me the woman I am today and it’s one of the reasons why I am so determined to ensure that education is at the top of our agenda in Swaziland, particularly for children.
It is education that has kept me healthy, kept me alive and is helping me help other women in Swaziland to do the same today.
With four other Swazi women in the same position, I founded Swaziland Positive Living (SWAPOL) – an organisation designed to combat discrimination and teach women about their rights. Within six years we had more than 5,000 women in Swaziland fighting for respect and understanding.
Six years ago, I met a young Welsh woman, Kathryn Llewellyn, and we have been working together ever since.
Together we support women and orphans and vulnerable children in Swaziland get the education they have a right to, while also trying to meet their basic needs.
Last year, after five years of working together, we co-founded Positive Women. Together, we want to create a movement of women in Africa who have the skills and resources to change their world and the world for others.
We are now generating international support for our cause and have had an overwhelmingly positive response to all we are doing.
With the right support, we want to find pioneering women all over Africa, ensuring that the voices of the most vulnerable are heard and no-one has to feel alone and helpless.
But we’ve also got a lot still to do in Swaziland – its women have the lowest life expectancy in the world and we have the highest HIV prevalence too.
This takes a huge toll on the country and has left us with so many orphans that our traditional support structures are crumbling under the weight.
That’s why I’m in Wales, meeting with representatives from the Assembly Government to try to highlight the difficulties women face in Swaziland.
We have to change these awful statistics. I will not let the women, children and men of my country die needlessly. My fellow Swazis will make these changes. We have strength and courage, we just need a little support on the way.
For more information about Positive Women or to support the organisation visit www.positivewomen.org