On Thursday, I visited a community project in Mfuleni near Khayelitsha, guided by an impressive community leader, Xoliswa (not her real name) – glamorous, powerful and articulate.
I asked her how she got involved in working with women and children in various communities and she narrated her own story with her head held high.
With a CD4 count of eight a couple of years ago, she gave up on life, fearful of how her mother in the Eastern Cape would react. In that state of ill-health, rejection was the one thing she most feared. But when her mother said “I love you, you are my child”, she gained the strength to go to the doctor and have herself diagnosed.
Upon receiving the news that she was HIV-positive, she took her medicines and sought help. News of the support provided by a local nongovernment organisation (NGO) drove her there and with specialised mentorship and training, she recovered fully.
Today she is a programme manager, studying for a degree in social work. Filled with the joys of love, she transforms the lives of women and girls in townships, giving them hope, inspiring them to see HIV not as a death sentence, but a catalyst for development.
I have been visiting HIV projects in various townships across the Western Cape over the past month to find out the impact of the provision of antiretroviral drugs on those who need them. I asked why the HIV rates were still relatively high when treatment is available? I inquired why behaviour change was one of the biggest challenges for people living with HIV and asked about the high prevalence of teenage pregnancy in the townships.
First, the many projects tackling these public health problems need to be commended for working tirelessly to stem the tide of HIV. While many clinics receive some form of support and/or partner with government, the burden is too big for NGOs to deal with the challenge of scale. Community counsellors reported high rates of sexually active children and the prevalence of pregnancy in children as young as 12 and 13, attending local clinics. “Children are having children”, which points to the importance of schools starting sex education early.
Community workers frequently say “the flipside of having ARVs readily available is an attitude that we need no longer die, medication is to be found at most clinics, so we need not protect ourselves”.
The ability to manage the virus has become a reality, diminishing the fear of death from HIV/Aids. Young women more easily contract the disease, attaching themselves to “blessers” who reward them with consumer goods in the absence of good education and employment opportunities. Older men still believe that sex with a virgin heals and young women who have nothing to lose play Russian roulette, the prospect of money and cellphones overriding contracting a disease which they are now able to control.
The billions set aside for nuclear energy, for deals in Eskom and luxurious cars and houses for politicians, could be used more profitably to transform the lives of the poor women and girls most vulnerable to the scourge of sexually transmitted diseases.
Their vulnerability is compounded by an unspeakable prevalence of sexual violence in the townships. An integrated approach involving major role players is needed to turn our broken society around.