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In our own words – Building HIV/AIDS movements in Zimbabwe

Dudzi: Angeline’s personal composure and confidence are two things that strike you the moment you meet her. She looks you straight in the eyes as she articulates heart rending experiences that led to her widowhood on 23 June 2000, but also to her enlightenment as feminist activist living with HIV/AIDS.

The United Nations has declared June 23 the International widows’ day. This is no mere coincidence for Angeline, but an International recognition she has received from … women she worked and shared experiences after her husband died from HIV/AIDS. Women like Nomcebo Manzini; the Regional Director for UNIFEM became more of sisters and mothers than donor representatives to me in my initial years as an AIDS activist. When I heard that 23 June had been declared a special day in honour of widows, I knew that my little efforts have gained recognition again. Angeline was awarded the Letten Foundation Award for 2004 in recognition for the key role she played in reducing stigmatiz ation and discrimination, and for advocating for antiretroviral therapy.

Angeline: I was widowed at age 29 and left with 2 kids aged 4 and 7. I had no savings, and my self-employed husband was penniless. I knew my husband was having affairs with many women, and I asked his relatives to intervene but they gave me a cold shoulder. They blamed me for his promiscuity, until he became very sick. I had a very low paying job that I had to quit for 1 and half years in order to take care of my sick husband. I had no money for food, for hospital bills and medication expenses. I borrowed a sewing machine from my mother and made cotton petticoats that I sold in Indians’ shops in town. My tripartite role as ‘nurse’, mother and breadwinner was weighing down heavily on me. My mother took my kids away to lessen this burden. My in-laws gave me no support, but advised me take my sick husband to the rural areas, as this would reduce funeral costs. I did not want to take him where there were no hospitals, and where the burden of care work would double.

I negotiated for free treatment at Wilkins Hospital and took extra prescriptions to my parents, who paid for them. Six months before my husband’s death caregivers from Mashambanzou Hospice visited and supplied me with food and other provisions.

After burying my husband, I went back to my secretarial job but failed to cope. Experience had had taught me that working only for individual financial benefit, without connecting to a collective and purposeful cause, and to the broader system, was disempowering. I became tired of talking to bosses and clients through the phone, and vowed a personal commitment to change the face of HIV and AIDS to a better one, especially with regards to women’s lives.

I started by doing social work as a volunteered focal person for Zimbabwe National Women’s Network.

I later joined the Centre, an HIV and AIDS organization, doing advocacy and gender work, as well raising funds for AIDS work. I moved to Action Aid as International Star (Society Tackling ids Through Rights) Resource person for 7 countries namely Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Bangladesh and Malawi, using the rights based approach to tackle HIV/AIDS issues.

Dudzi: Angeline got fed up with NGO work, noting that even the most influential AIDS organizations failed to take up a more explicit women’s right agenda, and women AIDS activists were less publicly visible in leadership positions. No one can articulate the agenda for us women better than ourselves. HIV/ AIDS work requires individuals with a passion at heart to combine efforts with NGOs and related organizations for success. NGOs alone have gotten caught up in duplicating state hierarchies and in a space like Zimbabwe where women are marginalized on every front, their issues also receive low play from these NGOs, many of which are headed and controlled by men, and operate in the mainstream. NGOs are duplicating each other’s work instead of enhancing each other’s efforts.

Angeline: I started targeting church women’s gatherings and prayer groups during mid-week to talk about prevention, treatment, care and support as well as behaviour change. At a later stage I discovered that targeting only women was not enough when it is the men that use their social and economic muscle to have multiple sexual relationships. I decided to confront the Catholic Church’s muteness on sex and condoms. I approached the local priests and got permission to also do this work as part of the church programme, targeting both men and women. I hold programmes twice a week, every Sunday and every Thursday in the whole of Chitungwiza. Working with other women, we have facilitated the formation of health committees in each and every church, with special emphasis on HIV and AIDS. Part of our agenda is to advocate for representation of women living with HIV and AIDS in the Parish Board, to give us more voice.

Of late I am also engaging women from church groups other than the Catholic. I am work with the Adventist Relief Agency, training them on mainstreaming HIV and AIDS, gender and rights into their ministry work.

Dudzi: Angeline has indeed crossed the line, ‘demanding’ to talk about HIV and AIDS in the church, thus ending the culture of silence and stigma.

Angeline: In 2008 I founded and registered THAMASO, a trust. We train ordinary women on HIV and AIDS treatment care and support using the WHO toolkit designed by SAFAIDS.

I find my engagement directly with women more empowering than the work I did in an NGO set up. My relationship with other women is based more on trust and values, which cannot be sustained at organizational level where progress is hampered by protocol and bureaucracy, and also confined to budgets and donor demands. My commitment feeds more on my personal commitment as a feminist and woman living with HIV and AIDS.
I am experimenting with the JASS Heart-Mind-Body programme, realising that women have done a lot to others either as activists or as mothers and care givers in the home, have dealt with very stressing and fragmenting issues, and hence the need to focus on their individual bodies. I am getting myself ready to take this holistic approach to the women I work with in the churches.

Dudzi: The Heart-Mind-Body initiative, whose pilot was launched in Zimbabwe in April puts self-care at the centre of sustained women’s organizing, creating space for reflecting, relaxation and dialogue. In this space women share experiences of insecurity, trauma and violence, and exchange survival strategies that range from health eating habits, exercise, recki, yoga and relaxation.

On Angeline’s wish list are mobile clinics to provide treatment and care, train on well being and on behaviour change in both rural and urban areas. She contends that building a critical mass of women across religious backgrounds will help fight the ignorance that breeds the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Angeline connects her past to the present, using her experiences to map way for and strengthen the future.

Angeline: I work with affected and infected women, but maintain networks with organsiations like SAFAIDS, Action Aid, GTZ, UNIFEM, Mashambanzou and Seke Rural Home Based Care to corral knowledge and resources for the benefit of women.

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