“If you want women’s votes in 2014 put 75 billion on the table for better ARVs,” was the challenge that Malawian activist leaders put on the table in the run-up to the May 20 general elections. While Malawi’s bid to ensure 50% representation of women in politics was not realized in this election cycle, HIV positive women activists stood up boldly to voice their demands to presidential and parliamentary candidates.
“We want action and more action…”
Malawians went to the polls on May 20th in what was the country’s fifth general election since attaining multiparty democracy in 1994. Despite the much-talked about ‘Cashgate’ scandal, President Joyce Banda was confident that she had done enough to address issues of government corruption and ensure her chances of regaining office. However in a surprising outcome, she lost the election to Peter Mutharika. Much has been made of the potential of Malawi’s 50/50 Campaign to encourage women to attain 50% representation in politics—but whether this goal is feasible, especially given the change in leadership, remains uncertain. Regardless of this, women activists are not prepared to wait for formal decisionmaking positions in order to fight for their rights to health, better treatment and care.
“We want action and more action from government and for members of parliament to come up with a separate vote in the national budget on ARVs.” ~ HIV Positive Women Activist Leaders
During the Our Bodies, Our Lives campaign in 2012 – a product of a four-year organizing effort by JASS and MANERELA+ – HIV positive women activists made bold statements that if Joyce Banda wanted their votes, she would need to put sustainable resources on the table to procure quality ARVs (antiretroviral treatment) and health services. Given the fact that government positions do not automatically mean gains for women’s rights and wellbeing, women activists are mobilizing in their thousands at district-level and nationally to make their voices count. Women want more money and a specific basket of funding for HIV treatment. They are also calling for the Malawi government to take greater responsibility for the provision of drugs and contribute more than 1% of the national budget towards this end.
As we engage our fellow women in the villages, we will tell them that if those who are campaigning for parliament [and local government] positions do not talk about the basket fund for ARVs then it means that they are not concerned with our lives. Those kinds of people can forget our vote. ~ Women activist panelist on Malawi Broadcasting radio
Women refuse to be silenced
The Our Bodies, Our Lives campaign mobilized for access to quality treatment, but even before the July 2013 roll-out, women activists were scrutinizing where drugs came from and how government procures them. This analysis has sparked critiques on the funding flows to Malawi for ARVs and related HIV services and women refuse to be silenced. Harnessing the power of radio, women activists partnered with the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation to host three nationwide shows to open the lid on some of the serious issues affecting positive people, including access to quality ARVs, and stigma and discrimination experienced in communities and at local hospitals. Community dialogues with local authorities and awareness-raising workshops that draw hundreds have opened the door for women to demand accountability and push for better services for HIV positive people.