Siphiwe Hlope, "Today women are so courageous"

Siphiwe Hlope is a pioneer. She was one of the first Swazi women to publicly declare her HIV status, in 2001, at a time when stigma against people living with the virus was intense. She went on to form Swaziland Positive Living (SWAPOL) to advocate awareness and the rights of HIV-positive people in a country with an adult HIV-prevalence rate of 26 percent, the world's highest.

"The way I have been outspoken with my statements and my actions, there is no more stigma attached to me ... But stigma [is still] a big problem, people are afraid. I was at the [South African] border post last week [and] two men saw me. They said, 'Siphiwe, can we talk? Are you really HIV positive?' I said, 'Yes'. They said, 'Please tell us how we can be so brave like you!'.

"So my coming out has made some people want to come out and declare their status. We call our group Swaziland Positive Living. The name came from the suffering we experienced; we wanted to make a positive out of a negative.

"Today, women are so courageous to declare their status if they are HIV-positive. It is so exciting when you go to a community and this happens. Yesterday we went to a rural community in Hlatikhulu [a town in southern Swaziland). We announced beforehand that the meeting was for HIV-positive women. Who showed up? One or two women? No, fifty women came to our meeting!

"It is so encouraging to see women coming out with their status, talking about their lives. When you think that this is a rural community, and 50 women are openly living their lives as HIV-positive persons - they tell you they are on ARVs [antiretroviral drugs]. It is such a difference from 2001, when women who were HIV [positive] were in hiding.

"We train families in HIV and AIDS knowledge, prevention and care ... Our first projects were [to provide] food security - backyard gardens and community gardens for people living with HIV and AIDS - then orphan care and Neighbourhood Care Points for vulnerable children.

"We have a mobile clinic, and an outreach programme. We track opportunistic infections, identify defaulters [who do not stick to their treatment], identify children who are HIV positive and get them treatment.

"We were founded as exclusively HIV-positive women, but as we grow and look at our demand, five percent of our members are now men. Our mobile clinic doesn't exclude anyone.

See also: SWAZILAND: All about hope

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