Women living with HIV/AIDS in Malawi have formed a united front to ensure they get the nutritious foods they need to maintain their health. The Coalition of Women Living with HIV/AIDS is encouraging its members to grow different types of crops and rear a variety of farm animals.
In Malawi, women represent over half of HIV-positive adults. A study has found that a quarter of all adults are malnourished and 75 percent of the malnourished are HIV-positive. The study also says women of child-bearing age and children under five often don’t get enough nutrition. That’s attributed to some government policies and traditional practices that deny women the right to own farm resources for food production.
AIDS activists say the lack of iron, Vitamin A and other nutrients has greatly compromised the health of women who are living with the virus.
UNAIDS says poor nutrition can hasten the progress of AIDS-related illnesses and make it difficult for patients to adhere to the strict regime of anti-retrovirals used to fight the disease. It is against this background that HIV-positive women in the northern district of Rumphi have come together.
Memory Chirwa is the district’s food nutrition officer, “We decided to form the coalition after recognizing the challenges HIV-positive women were facing, more especially in accessing food. So the coalition is helping them meet some of basic needs for their health.”
Chirwa says the coalition was formed with the support of ActionAid International-Malawi. She says the women are engaged in development activities like farming, “We teach the women that they should eat nutritious foods so we therefore encourage them to grow various crops, like vegetables and maize. Some of the women are now keeping goats and chicken things that have changed their lives.”
She says with enough funding, NGOs will train women to make soap -- a way to raise money to buy foods that they cannot produce on their own.
Chirwa says sensitization meetings held by this and other AIDS groups are part of an effort to empower women to demand their rights.
She says the meetings have helped them, despite what she calls the government’s failure to ensure that subsidized seeds and fertilizers are distributed to women.
“They were refusing to give us the coupons because we were called dead people," she said.
But the government says it will soon start distributing free foods for those infected.
Mary Shaw is the principal secretary in the Office of President and Cabinet responsible for HIV and Nutrition.
“We have developed a nutrition policy," she explains, "whose main goal is actually providing adequate nutrition for all Malawians. It is also in line with the provision of the constitution with is has provided for adequate nutrition for Malawians.”
The country’s blueprint for development, the Malawi Growth Development Strategy, also provides for prevention and management of nutrition disorders and HIV/AIDS.
The government has so far put one million Malawians on free ARV treatment – up from about 4,000 in 2004.
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