Last Updated: Wednesday - 01/05/2011
November 26, 2001
World AIDS Day - Dec. 1
Zambian widows find support
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
At first, Maureen Mapanza didn't understand why her husband began to fall ill in the summer of 1995. Maureen could not explain why her strong and healthy husband had become so visibly frail and sick.
Over the course of the year his conditioned worsened, until the following summer when he eventually died.
Although Maureen had become prepared for the reality of her husband's death, she still felt tremendous grief because she didn't know the cause of the tragedy. She was left alone with six children, little money and many questions.
Had Maureen lived in Canada, we might expect that her community would come together to support her. Even though the community could not have provided answers to her questions, they might have pitched in to help a widowed mother stay on her feet.
In Maureen's Zambian community, however, things were different. In a country where nearly one-fifth of the adult population is HIV positive, folks are quick to assume that the cause of an unexplained death is AIDS. Along with that assumption comes negative stigmas that encourage the community to isolate, rather than assist, the widowed mother.
When Maureen's community assumed that her husband had died of AIDS, she began to feel the pain of stigmatization.
Some community members who didn't understand much about the nature of the disease feared they would contract HIV/AIDS from being too close to Maureen and her children. These people moved off walking paths when Maureen approached, refused to share food with her, and told their children not to play with her kids.
Others who were more informed about HIV/AIDS were not afraid to brush shoulders with Maureen, but they still carried demoralizing opinions about her. Many talked poorly of her deceased husband, asserting that he had been promiscuous and deceiving. They assumed the entire family was of similarly questionable character.
Some said behind Maureen's back that she too would die from AIDS, or that her children had HIV. Some believed that the death was Maureen's fault; that her husband's HIV-contracting habits resulted from her inability to "keep him happy."
Fortunately, Maureen was not alone in her struggle. Her situation is a common experience for the many widows in Zambia today. This state of affairs has led to the formation of community projects aimed at mitigating the effects of HIV/AIDS on households and communities.
One such program is the Livingstone Widows Association (LWA). Formed in 1996, the LWA helps some 300 women cope with the social and economic strains that widowhood brings.
According to LWA Chairperson Helen Patricia Mwalongo, the group provides an opportunity for Maureen and other widows to express their psychological distress: "We share experiences of how to overcome stress and avoid falling into depression, teach each other on how to conduct ourselves to live longer, as well as share information on coping with HIV/AIDS."
The widows association also provides members with educational loans for their children. Any widow who does not have enough money for her children's schooling is eligible for a $75 interest-free loan. Maureen Mapanzo was a grateful recipient, and her six children are now in school because of it.
The LWA is only one of many community programs that work in partnership with CARE in Zambia. According to CARE's Michelle Munro, policy and programs advisor for HIV/AIDS, empowering community leaders to form organizations like LWA is one of the most effective ways to combat AIDS.
"At CARE, we strongly believe in supporting community-based action. In the case of AIDS in Zambia, we're talking about an epidemic that is affecting almost every family. Yet, despite the collective consequences, AIDS fractures Zambian communities," Munro said.
"In order to combat HIV/AIDS, communities need to come together, not break apart."
Thankfully, with programs like the LWA, and with the courageous efforts of women like Maureen Mapanzo, Zambian communities are coming together again. These women and their programs are helping people in the face of crisis, to share in their collective grief, to console fears and to reduce stigmas.
On World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, Michelle Munro hopes that Canadians will think of their responsibility: "In this global struggle against AIDS, a strong community is the best recipe for a better, healthier future. I hope we can apply that idea to our own home towns, our country, and our global village as well."
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