HIV stigma stalks Swaziland

Wife chased away by husband's family, another woman stabbed by her husband for being HIV positive

One year ago, in the small kingdom of Swaziland, 25-year-old Zanele Mamba was living on the edge. She and her husband, Mfanzile Dlamini, were HIV-positive and had already lost two babies to AIDS.

They lived in a one-room hut in Mkhulamini, 50 kilometres east of the capital Mbabane, surviving on subsistence farming and Dlamini's meagre salary as a night watchman.

Dlamini's family, who owned the land they lived on, constantly harassed the couple about their HIV status.

“Mfanzile’s family would say horrible things to him,” said Mamba. “I kept telling him, 'Don't worry about it. Don't go to them'. But then they came to our house and continued with the verbal abuse.”   

The couple lived for their 14-month-old daughter, Phiwa, who was  HIV-negative, thanks to the prevention services Mamba received at a  local clinic. Dlamini and Mamba also had access to government- supplied anti-AIDS medicine, which allowed them to stay relatively healthy.

The situation worsened as the year wore on. Dlamini’s treatment failed and he became too ill to work. In June 2010, he died. And Mamba realised she was no longer welcome in her home.

“They (Dlamini’s family) took everything I had. They took the chickens. They took my clothes. It was a sign saying, 'Just move. We don't want you here'. So I decided to pack up and leave.”   

On the day of her husband’s funeral, Mamba took her daughter and  left. She was six months pregnant with her fourth child.

Swaziland has the world’s highest prevalence of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. More than a quarter of Swazis aged between 15 and  49 — 26 per cent — is infected, yet people who disclose their status are often severely stigmatised.

HUSBAND'S FURY AND DESPAIR

Phumzile, who asked that her surname not be used, was stabbed by  her husband after they both tested HIV-positive.

He blamed her for bringing the disease into their home.

“He said he was going to cut my throat and kill himself because he can't stand the humiliation of telling people that he’s HIV- positive.

"I think he thought I was dead because I was bleeding profusely.”   

Phumzile left to live with her parents and lost all her possessions.

She eventually recovered from her injuries and now works at a government hospital, counselling other women who test positive for HIV.

EVEN NURSES ARE PREJUDICED

According to Zandile Nhleko, community linkages officer for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation in Swaziland, HIV stigma  is still entrenched in rural parts of Swaziland, where more than 75  percent of Swazis live.

“People in urban areas have more access to information — they have the internet, they go out more,” Nhleko said.

And yet access to information alone hasn’t done enough to overcome stigma, as still-high levels of prejudice among health workers and government officials testify.

Nhleko says she has seen nurses refuse to share dishes and food with colleagues who are HIV-positive.

Last year, a Swazi parliamentarian caused outrage when he proposed branding the buttocks of every Swazi who tests positive for HIV.

Some experts blame a lack of leadership at the top.

King Mswati III, Swaziland’s absolute monarch, has 13 wives - despite multiple concurrent sexual partners increasing the risk of infection with HIV.

In 2001, he banned girls under 18 from having sex in an effort to curb the spread of the virus. Soon after he married a 17-year-old girl.

To date, not a single Swazi political leader has openly disclosed his or her HIV status.

HOPE FOR THE FUTURE

And yet, as World AIDS Day approaches again, there are glimmers of hope.

Zanele Mamba is now living with her mother, Alice Mamba, in rural Lubombo region.

Alice, 48, makes no secret of the fact that she is HIV-positive.  Several of their neighbours have also disclosed their status, suggesting that efforts by non-government organizations to educate Swazis are working and stigma has eased, at least in this particular community.

“I am very very happy here,” says Zanele, who gave birth in September to a baby boy, Nkosingphile ("Gift from God"), who has tested HIV-negative thus far.

Alice feels that people with HIV should take responsibility for defeating stigma in Swaziland.

"People living with HIV should not hide their HIV status, but they should just disclose and tell everybody about HIV," she said.

"It's very important for everybody to know that if you have HIV you are still a human being."

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