The kingdom of Swaziland, landlocked between South Africa and Mozambique, is one of the smallest and poorest countries in Africa. It is also afflicted with the highest rate of HIV/AIDS infection in the world. One group has found a way to help poor rural women earn money at home so that they can still care for their families and other children who have lost their parents to AIDS.

Every Tuesday, a group of women gather at the workshop of the Gone Rural project. They bring mats, holders and other tableware that they have woven during the week.

Swazi women traditionally plait grass to make thatch roofs for their homes.

Gone Rural Director Philippa Thorne says now they are using these skills to make handcrafts. They sell them to her group, earning about 15 times their original investment.

"Many of our women are supporting a lot of dependents, their children plus orphans from the community," she said.  "So it's important that they're also able to work at home so they can fulfill their parenting duties and also maintain their subsistence lifestyle."

The organization does not charge the women for dyeing and processing the material they use or for marketing the finished product. Instead it passes these costs on to the consumer. This is part of a fair trade initiative called IFAT that works against the exploitation of traditional artisans.

Gone Rural focuses mainly on women living in remote villages. Every three weeks, a truck goes to one of 13 communities to buy their products and place new orders.

More than one-half of Swazi women between the age of 15 and 50 years are HIV-positive. Many women here are also caring for AIDS orphans.

Zinhle Vilakati, 30, heads a family of eight. She says Gone Rural has taught her how to weave products that bring in more money.

"We get money every time we come here," he said.  "So we are getting much help from this company.  And we are very happy because they say they are happy with our products."

Thorne's group also holds health and education programs in these communities. This month a mobile clinic is to start visiting to provide free health care. Last year the organization paid school fees for 800 AIDS orphans.

Thorne says the women's courage is impressive.

"They are really amazing women, I think - the kind of strength that they have to hold their families together and to provide for their children," she noted.

Vilakati says by working hard she earns about $30 a week.

"Every Tuesday I come and bring the products I've made the whole week," she added.  "I get money and my family will be happy today because I will come with what they need."

Since its creation 17 years ago, Gone Rural has grown to a $500,000-a-year enterprise, employing 700 Swazi women. Their products are now marketed through some 300 retailers in 32 countries around the world.