HIV/AIDS Support Groups: Their Power and Their Promise

Catherine Vilakazi, a member of the Zombotze Garden Project in Swaziland is HIV positive. She was tested three years ago and received the news on her 40th birthday. She was probably HIV positive for several years before the diagnosis. After becoming gravely ill she decided to be tested and discovered her status. Her husband died last year of AIDS. She has three children – all HIV negative.

Catherine is soft spoken with a smile that lights up a room. It was the support group and the women of the Home Care Task Force of Nazarene Compassionate Ministries that encouraged her to get tested. They were with her after the initial diagnosis and they provided counseling, spiritual encouragement and nutritional support. She faithfully adheres to the regimen of ARVs and she works in the garden in order to supplement her nutritional needs.

Catherine found strength from the women in the support group. The 45 women that make up the Zombotze Garden Project are all HIV positive. They have all battled the disease and faced the challenges of adhering to their treatment requirements made more difficult by the of lack of food and water. Catherine, as the other women do, volunteers a minimum of two hours a week to the garden. Garden may not be the most accurate description. The gardens consist of about ten acres of farm land. The Zombotze garden has had three harvests and is producing enough food to support the nutritional needs of the participants. In fact, they now sell some of their harvest back to the community.

Catherine credits the support group for educating her about the disease, creating accountability around ART adherence, promoting testing in her community and finally, if not most important to Catherine, dealing with the stigma that often isolates individuals living with HIV/AIDS. Catherine told us that “this Garden has fed me and it has given me courage to live with my disease.” In Swaziland, where the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate among women of child bearing age is 43%, nobody talks about the issue. They refer to AIDS as the “sickness.” A woman with HIV/AIDS is likely to be kicked out of the home, lose her employment if she has employment and socially isolated in the community. This is happening in a country where three out of ten individuals are HIV positive.

Support groups of women with specific income generating projects like the garden project are combating AIDS and the stigma attached to the disease. Catherine is clear that the support group helps her and all the participants cope with the stereotypes and stigma that can limit their chances for survival. Early evidence clearly suggests that the “cure” for AIDS in Africa is finding ways to encourage women to become part of these social and community networks. They are made stronger by their participation. A core activity of the support groups is to confront the issues of concurrent partners. In sub-Saharan Africa, having risky sexual behavior with concurrent partners is the single most significant contributor to the spread of AIDS and other STDs. Through education by community health workers, the women in these support groups know how to confront risky sexual behavior among the group and with their partners.

Catherine is alive today because women are caring for women in the community of Zombotze. They meet weekly and they work in their garden and they are there for each other in times of crisis. These groups are the hope of Swaziland and maybe the hope of Africa in the struggle to combat “the sickness.”

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