During our first week in the field, we had the opportunity to meet with one of the long-established HIV+ mothers groups. As we joined them underneath the shade of a large tree, smiling politely behind a cultural and language barrier, I was struck by the level of closeness the women had with one another. One by one, they came in from their morning work and sat down with the women from whom they had found guidance and support. They shook hands with those around them and sat down on the tarp laid out over the ground, elbows and knees touching. One woman leaned back into the arms of another, letting out an infectious laughter that met the smiling and giggling faces of others. As we waited for our session to begin, the women seemed content to sit amongst each other and enjoy one another’s company. The community they belonged to had been formed many years before from individuals who were struggling with shared hardships of being HIV+. Over a period of months, GWED-G had provided them with basic livelihood support, sensitization sessions, and VSLA & GBV trainings. This assistance allowed members to develop a sustainable way of living and as we were witnessing, the chance to smile and laugh together. It was a reassuring first glimpse of the beneficial effects of our project with GWED-G and encouraging of what other positively affected groups we would encounter.
In our second week however, when we visited to a group of new HIV+ mothers, we realized just how far that first group had come. When we arrived at the village health center to deliver 30 mama kits, we found a group of new and expecting mothers lined up outside. The intimacy among the members that we had seen the previous week was only there in traces among the occasional smiles and conversations shared within the group. These mothers, most having joined after learning about the group from VHTs, had been together for only a few weeks, although one even mentioned having joined the group the previous day. As we learned in their interviews, many came from polygamous households or had husbands who were unwilling to support their getting tested or treated for HIV. Rose, a forty-two year old mother, lived with two other co-wives and received little support from them or her spouse. While her husband allowed Rose to get tested at the hospital after the other co-wives were found to be HIV+, the husband refused to accompany her and stated that if she tested positive, she should keep the information to herself because he did not need to know about it.
Cases like this one where a woman finds out about her status and receives little or no support while devastating, are common. Juliet, GWED-G’s GBV Response & Reproductive Rights Officer, explained how the stress of finding out about one’s status can be so great that many have described feeling as if they could die from the anxiety. As another mother, Lucy, explained, many can feel helpless and as if they can’t do anything. Fear, she said, can make it seem impossible to access treatment and was why it took so long for her to finally seek help. Even more, while the stigma against HIV+ individuals has decreased, it still exists and can contribute even more stress. During this period when individuals who have just found out about their status are trying to understand what to do next, there is a great need for support. Lucy said that what finally motivated her to go to a hospital was to find strength in others who told her to be strong and enroll in treatment. For the mothers outside the health center, waiting for their mama kits and who had only begun to receive support from each other and GWED-G, there seemed to be many needs that belonging to a community could help fill.
One of the repeated concerns of the new mothers we interviewed was their livelihood. Many were troubled by how to pay their hospital fees and support their children, often asking for tools they could use to make their living such as ox, ox plows, and goats. Even requests for seed donations were common as the previous harvest had failed to yield enough viable bean seeds. As of now, these mothers have not yet been trained in how to form a VSLA and save money for expenses such as buying seeds or paying hospital and school fees. We saw from the old mothers how this training allows members to take out loans or provide welfare to the benefit of the individual and the group. Similar training for the new mothers would allow many mothers the opportunity to buy materials they could use to support themselves.
GWED-G can also provide other services for these mothers such as GBV training that would offer the knowledge of how to address instances of violence and the rights they are entitled to. With the pressures from discrimination against those with HIV/AIDS and prevalence of GBV, knowing what powers these mothers have to address their circumstances is important so that these powers are not taken away. As of now, these mothers have not been major beneficiaries of GWED-G’s programs. Some had just received mama kits for recent births, but there were still many new members who had not received their kits or anything else from GWED-G. Their progress was limited compared to that of the longer-established group, but GWED-G has had a lot of success with groups like them in the past. For future GROW trips, it would be worthwhile to check on this group of mothers and see if they have been able to improve their conditions.
Even though this group has only recently been formed, many of the new mothers expressed interest in continuing to be a part of the group. One expressed her belief that they should remain together so that they could become stronger as individuals. Compared with the stability of the old mothers, this group could gain much from having each other’s counsel and assistance. Besides their status, these mothers are united by their desire to provide for their children. When we asked Lucy what her hopes for the future were, she stated that her only hope was to remain alive so that she could take care of her children. Others described how their children were the reasons they are willing to get check ups so that they can be healthy and capable of being good mothers. This common goal might provide the basis for allowing this group and each of its members to thrive in the future.
Franny has spoken about the remarkable changes she has seen in individuals who have been in the groups GWED-G has assisted. She recounted one example of a mother named Beatrice who was in such a poor condition the first time she saw her that Franny wasn’t sure if she would make it to the next time they could meet with the group. However, as GWED-D continued to monitor them, Franny witnessed this mother not only remain a member of the group, but eventually became one of its leaders and role models. Of the seven women we interviewed, six of them had HIV- children and hoped only that they could keep their children healthy and provide them with an education. With GWED-G’s continued support as well as the reliance upon each other, we hope that they will begin to develop the tools for accomplishing this and that this group will become truly transformative for them.