The first part of Judith Msukwa’s story—a local girl from Chilambilo Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Chikulamayembe, Rumphi District—is nothing unusual among the youth living with HIV in Malawi.
After losing both parents, Judith, got impregnated while in Standard Five. She dropped out of school.
Two years later, she begins feeling weak and, silently, she sneaks to a nearby health centre where she is diagnosed with HIV.
“People here believe I am being punished for the sins of my parents. They say they were promiscuous and died of Aids,” she says.
As a young mother, an orphan and head of household, Judith has suffered all she could from a community that was supposed to be the source of her comfort.
Her community could not even consider her in emergency relief programmes by government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Social Cash Transfer, Public Works Programme, and relief food distribution meant for vulnerable households.
Reviled by the community and ridiculed by her neighbours, Judith began to live a hideous life in her house, waiting to die.
In the usual version of the story, Judith, by today, could have died leaving behind a congress of helpless young orphans.
But her story does not end that way. She joined a Teen Club, a grouping of HIV-positive adolescents in her area.
The clubs are part Investing in Our Future project, which is being implemented by Rumphi HIV and Aids Education Awareness Programme (Reap) with financial support from Tilitonse Fund through Southern African Aids Trust (Saat)-Malawi.
According to Reap programme director Thokozire Mkandawire the project identifies that adolescents and youths living with HIV and Aids are still in the indeterminate state regarding their HIV status.
“Realising this, the project uses capacity building strategies to increase knowledge and skills among youth and adolescents living with HIV to manage challenges of living with HIV. This is done through the Teen Club which was established by the project at Rumphi District Hospital,” she says.
Judith’s first visit to the Teen Club brought relief in her life. Her long-standing fears, worries and misery met an environment that brought hope in her life and her child. Her joys began to return: she could play games, share jokes, dance, jeer and laugh with friends.
“I am seeing a different side of my problems. I thought my life was coming to an end. I did not know that young people living with HIV are just so many having such fun here,” she confesses.
The club, which started with 119 members in January, 2013, rose with 16 more by December 2013.
Through the Teen Club, Judith and fellow adolescents are also helped to easily access ARVs at Rumphi Hospital.
“Previously, we used to treat these teens just like any other client. However, through the project we have realised that the teens need special care if the hospital is to realise improved drug adherence by the teens on ARVs.
“Already, we are talking of over 136 happy teens forming the membership of the Teen Club here at the hospital. These are teens who are on ARVs and who know their status. This is unlike over a year ago when only 6 teens could be traced as registered on ART at the hospital,” says Lovemore Kawayi, public relations officer for Rumphi District Hospital.
Rumphi district social welfare officer Joshua Saini adds that Reap has been networking with other partners in proving basic knowledge and empowering these teens through the provision of basic knowledge and skills to the youth.
“Reap has made it possible for people to claim their rights from duty bearers,” he says.
Reap also engages parents and guardians and communities who are potential partners in provision of care and support for adolescents living with HIV and Aids. Through these engagements, communities surrounding Rumphi Boma have been seen to openly discuss issues of sex and sexuality between parents and adolescents; reduced stigma and discrimination of the youth and adolescents living with HIV and Aids, and reduced fear and despair among adolescents living with HIV and Aids.
Today, Judith is not the despised girl she used to be.
Her story has moved a number of stakeholders in the district to rethink how they view adolescents living with the virus in the district.
According Reap project officer Collins Mhango, various stakeholders have made several commitments to help address the misery of Judith and her child.
“They have rehabilitated her house which was in a dilapidated state; they provide food items; they enrolled her for any emergency relief programme; they enrolled her for a school bursary programme so that she can go back to school; and again sending her child to an orphanage among others,” he says.
Mhango adds that Reap envisages a future where people are knowledgeable about HIV and sexual reproductive health (SRH), accessing quality HIV and Aids and SHR services in the full realisations of their human rights, and men play a more proactive role in SHR,” he says.