AIDS in Malawi
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JONATHAN SILVERS: The harvest has begun in southern Malawi and the maize crop is largely a failure. The rains came early in the planting season; storms or rare intensity that washed away seeds and shoots. The drought that followed stunted the remaining crop and left farmers no chance to replant. After two years of meager harvests, the country’s food reserves are depleted and villagers, already malnourished, are speaking openly of famine.
IWENI BONONGWE, Farmer (Translated): People are going without food for many days and are selling anything they can for money to buy food.
JONATHAN SILVERS: Iweni Bonongwe is a farmer in the province of Mangochi. Since January, he’s lost two- thirds of his maize crop, the staple for his family of seven.
IWENI BONONGWE (Translated): The children are very weak because there is no food. They’re very sick. Even if they go to school, they can’t concentrate. No one cares about us. There’s been no assistance. My neighbors are all suffering. There’s a woman not far from here, she and her children are starving and they’re all alone.
JONATHAN SILVERS: The woman is named Margaret Kulekana. A widow, she lost one of her four children earlier this year to malnutrition and is now struggling to feed her family. Like many women in Southern Africa, the AIDS pandemic has left her alone in that struggle. The hardships imposed by the drought have been compounded by the death of her husband, who is believed to have died from AIDS- related complications.
MARGARET KULEKANA (Translated): We were living in the city of Zomba. My husband died after a long illness and we came here to live with my parents. I came here because I had some problems. I was removed from my house. There were some people interfering with my property.
JONATHAN SILVERS: The people were her husband’s family. The “interference” she experienced is known legally as dispossession, and more commonly as property-grabbing. Weeks after her husband’s death, Margaret and her children were besieged by his relatives.
MARGARET KULEKANA (Translated): They grabbed everything in the house. We had a prosperous home and they snatched the cooking utensils and iron roof, the furniture, everything.
JONATHAN SILVERS: Margaret has lived with her children and parents for three years in a one-room hut. It’s a far cry from the five- room house she called home. Last year, her adopted son Julius found a job in their old town, 50 kilometers away. He’s 16 and comes every month to bring his family the little food he can spare. A generation ago, dispossession was an exceptional event. But since the AIDS pandemic began 20 years ago, the exceptional has become commonplace. The disease has claimed more than 15 million lives in sub-Saharan Africa. Combined with poverty and unemployment, it is altering basic social relationships.
ELIZABETH HUGHES, UNICEF, Malawi: Social relations have been affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic particularly when it comes to the role of the extended family. Whereas in the past the extended family was very close, very cohesive, now we’re moving more towards the nuclear family and the fragmentation of the community. You see it also because the community has… are so desperate for resources that they are willing to consider the property more valued than the custody and the care of the widow and orphans.
JONATHAN SILVERS: Joyce Giya’s descent into poverty was especially extreme. Her husband was once a member of parliament. He died in 1999 after a two-year battle with HIV. Joyce now has little but memories.
JOYCE GIYA, Widow of AIDS Victim (Translated): When I was married, my husband had a high status as a member of parliament and we lived a good life. We had a new truck, there was always food, we kept crates of beverages and bought meat and fresh fish often. We live here now because of my husband’s death. His parents no longer consider me related to them, and two years ago they forced me from the house that my husband and I built.
JONATHAN SILVERS: While their numbers are growing and their suffering profound, victims of property grabbing have been largely invisible. But the Southern Africa research Trust reports that dispossession of widows like Joyce has become the most prevalent and entrenched form of violence that Malawi women experience.
SEODI WHITE, Woman and Law in Southern Africa Research Trust: It is one of the saddest issues to see a woman who was in her own… she used to believe in herself. She had high self-esteem but as her property is being dispossessed, as she is losing the social ties of her husband’s family, how she starts losing confidence in herself, in the state, in the law, in the justice system. She has to move from her lovely house to go and stay in a village. And you see her deteriorating by the day. I’m supposed to be a champion of the law, I’m supposed to help this woman, but you find that the social forces are stronger than you, they’re stronger than her. You can be bound together to say “let’s fight this.” It’s taking years, it’s taking time, it’s very disheartening, I must say.
JONATHAN SILVERS: Joyce and her three children now live in a one-room shack. Unlike most women, Joyce has a basic knowledge of legal affairs, acquired through her husband’s political activities. And unlike many women in her position, she sought professional help. Ivy Chipofya Mshali is Joyce’s legal advisor. She’s cofounder of the Malawi Center for Advice, Research and Education on Rights.
IVY CHIPOFYA MSHALI, Malawi Center for Advice, Research and Education on Rights: In a normal situation, if Joyce had the resources, she would have gone to a lawyer to act for her but because she’s a poor person she can’t afford legal fees so that’s why she came to this center because this center is intended to help people who can’t afford legal fees.
JONATHAN SILVERS: Each week, scores of women– mostly widows– seek the center’s help in recovering property.
IVY CHIPOFYA MSHALL: Property grabbing is a growing problem because these days deaths are very frequent, maybe because of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. So the HIV/AIDS pandemic has reached to an increase in deaths, so that’s why the incidents of property grabbing are also on an increase.
JONATHAN SILVERS: Ivy and her colleagues have had little success in the courts. With other women’s rights organizations, they are now advocating for new laws that protect women and children.
ELIZABETH HUGHES: We need to advocate more and sensitize chiefs and traditional authorities to try and make them see fair play as a principle. And we are doing that. I think it is the only way we can curb the problem because it is about empowerment of rights. It’s not anything that a huge amount of resources is going to change. We have to change attitudes.
JONATHAN SILVERS: When that change will occur is anyone’s guess. While awareness is growing, so too is the desperation that leads to dispossession. Famine has claimed thousands of lives this year in Malawi, where nearly 80 million people-70 percent of the population– are hungry, according to the World Food Program. With food reserves depleted, with malnutrition fueling outbreaks of malaria and cholera, the prospects for AIDS widows and orphans will likely remain bleak.