Positive women's football beats stigma

Janet Mpilime, 32, captain of the ARV Swallows, an all-woman football team based in the informal settlement of Epworth, 10km east of the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, has just led her team to a 2-1 victory over Sporting ART.



Wearing a football kit similar to that of Spain's number-one team, Barcelona, and smiling broadly, Mpilime explained that the name ARV Swallows was chosen to help fight stigma against people living with HIV.



ARV is short for antiretroviral, the life-prolonging drugs used to treat people with HIV, while ART stands for antiretroviral treatment. All the women in both teams are positive.



"We come from a very poor neighbourhood which has been hard hit by the effects of HIV/AIDS, but for a long time many people have suffered, endured and died in silence, as they were afraid of declaring that they were HIV positive," she said.



"Following the formation of our team in 2008, many women came out of their shells and we now have more than 20 women who play for the team." ARV Swallows have already won three competitions, and have helped change the perception that people living with HIV are too sickly to participate in sports.



"People in the different communities that we play in always express their surprise that members of the team look healthy," said Mpilime, a single mother of two who tested HIV positive four years ago. "Through football, we have gone a long way in fighting stigma."



Chris Sambo, a veteran football administrator who now coordinates 16 teams of HIV-positive female players in three of Zimbabwe's 10 provinces, came up with the idea of using football to fight HIV-related stigma in 2007.



"Football is the most popular and unifying sport in the world, and I believe that it makes a very good platform for encouraging behavioural change and the fight against the stigmatization of people living with HIV," he told IRIN/PlusNews.



Before and after matches, the women give talks on the effect HIV has had on their lives and how they have overcome hurdles, while peer educators hand out HIV/AIDS information and condoms. Peer educator Fredrick Chitalu, 46, spent much of the match between ARV Swallows and Sporting ART fielding a barrage of questions from inquisitive girls and women.



"These football tournaments are always well attended, and all the literature - and both male and female condoms - run out because people are eager to learn more about HIV and sexually transmitted infections," he said.



Sambo noted that the project had so far failed to recruit enough HIV-positive men to form male teams. "That has been a blow to our efforts; however, the involvement of women and the youth has helped a lot because we now have men making inquiries on how they can participate."



The greatest challenge has been funding. "Because of financial constraints we are not able to play as regularly as we would want. Some companies and banks have given us support, but for a programme as big as this, we would want a lot [more]."



Mpilime said many of the women were experiencing economic hardship. "All our members are not formally employed and we survive by selling fruit and vegetables and firewood. Poverty impacts on our nutrition because we are not able to have a healthy and balanced diet."



dd/ks/he



See also: SOUTH AFRICA: Footballers join AIDS fight