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Women fight for quality ARVs in Malawi

  • JASS

As part of the week-long campaign, JASS, together with partner Manerela+, convened a National Women’s Dialogue on ARVs with stakeholders and decision-makers in Lilongwe in October to demand for an immediate rollout of quality ART. Women also met with Ministry of Health officials and took to the streets during the Global Race to SAVE Lives Conference to demand the necessary resources and support from the Ministry of Health, medical institutions, local financial lending institutions and government to SAVE women’s lives now.


Closing the Gaps: What is happening to women on the ground?

In the run-up to the national women’s dialogue, woman activist leader, Esnat Mbandambanda from southern Malawi, made a critical input in front of President Joyce Banda at the National People Living with HIV/AIDS conference. Highlighting how Stavudine distorts women’s bodies and impacts their relationships and access to resources, Esnat also pointed to the disconnects between the real-life challenges of accessing treatment and treatment literacy because of perceptions held by the general public, media and the government.

The nurse shouted at [a woman on T30 who wished to change drug regimen because of side effects], ‘You are alive—what do you want now? Changing the shape of the body—it’s nothing, provided that you are alive.’ I looked at the woman; she was very thin with a lot of veins in the arms and the legs. So I transferred her to my health center in my district. She is not the only one facing these problems, there are a lot of women but they don’t know where to go with their problems. ~ Esnat Mbandambanda, relating experiences of women in healthcare centers across the Southern Region that are unable to access better treatment

Amplifying Women’s Voices

To kick-start the national women’s dialogue, 20 journalists from national and community-based media houses including the national broadcaster Malawi broadcasting corporation (radio and television), Zodiac, Capital FM, The Nation and Radio Islam gathered at Malawi Information Centre for a press briefing on October 19.  Sibongile Chibwe Singini (of MANERELA+) and Mirriam Msewa (women activist leader from Paradiso T.B. Trust) shared a press release about the dialogue and fielded questions from journalists.  The press conference generated much interest as evidenced by the presence of many of those journalists at the dialogue, feature articles in two national newspapers, daily news clips on national news as well as a 20-minute in-depth news special.

Creating Space for Women to Talk

The national women’s dialogue brought more than 160 Malawian women activists together along with stakeholders and decisionmakers to build collective analysisand map demands for quality ART over two days at Kalikuti Hotel in Lilongwe.  

Representing all three regions of Malawi, women activists celebrated HIV positive women’s organizing through song and dance. They engaged key policy makers including Dr. Chimbwandira, Head of the HIV/AIDS Unit at the Ministry of Health, who briefed women on the status of the rollout of the new ART. Martha Kwataine from the Malawi Equity Health Unit shed light on the budget and funding landscape to support treatment, health infrastructure and personnel and provided women with statistics to support their demands regarding financing. Her session generated radical ideas for local resource mobilization including asking President Joyce Banda to put 75 billion MKW (USD 230 730) on the table for new ARVs and women as a constituency will mobilize for her re-election in 2014. Grace Malera from the Malawi Human Rights Commission outlined women’s rights under the Malawian constitution (including Section 16: The Right to Life and Section 30: The Right to Development with special provision given to women) to support women with ammunition to demand quality and timely access to treatment and services.

Through a participatory process, the 160 women activists drafted a communiqué listing their demands to the Minister of Health (who is also the Vice President of Malawi). On the evening of the last day of the dialogue, armed with paint and paint brushes, women translated their demands into posters and placards in preparation for the March to S.A.V.E Children And Their Mothers From HIV Infections, Stigma & Preventable Deaths.

Movement Building in Faith-based Spaces

The Interfaith service held on the second day of the women’s dialogue fostered new solidarities and linkages across religious difference and diversity. With over 200 congregants, and a wide range of denominations and faiths represented, women pastors and activists preached and shared their own testimonies, a dramatic presentation illustrating the difficulties of the current ART regimen for women and men. zthe service was a potent example of the effectiveness of movement building within faith-based communities. As a symbolic gesture, the congregation collected almost MKW 20 000 to start a fund for decent ARVs and better lives.

Positive Women’s Demands

Women activists’ research to understand women’s experiences of ARVs in their communities formed a key part of the campaign mobilization, generating a string of urgent and provocative messages to President Joyce Banda and the Malawian government. The devastating impact of Stavudine on women’s bodies, the stigma and discrimination they experience, the need to connect women’s access to quality to ARVs with access to other critical resources including fertilizer and savings loans in order to live healthy lives are just some of the demands women put on the table. Another key issue: the high degree of external dependence for funding for HIV programming and the government’s responsibility to find local resources to support ARVs and related programs.

The Race to Save Lives

“We, as the Coalition of Women Living with HIV and AIDs knew our rights and used our collective power and that’s why we took it in our hands to demand the access of ARVs. If we hadn’t known, the women could have gone home without medication.” ~ Kwangu Tembo

JASS lit up the SAVE Conference with a colorful booth and a panel presentation, “Women’s Empowerment and Movement-building to Save Lives in the Fight against HIV/AIDS”.  Using case studies narrated by three women activists, Tiwonge Gondwe (Women Forum, Northern Malawi), Kwangu Tembo (Coalition of Women Living with HIV/AIDS, Central Malawi) and Linnah Matanya (Women for Fair Development, Southern Malawi), participants explored the ways in which women have fought for access to resources, treatment services and behavior change in their communities.

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