A woman who abandoned HIV treatment because “life had become worthless” has astonishingly discovered her immense worth in raising orphans rejected by her extended family. As our Staff Writer JAMES CHAVULA writes, social cash transfers are helping them live for each other better and stronger.
At 60, Diana Kwasenga has survived uncertainties associated with HIV, the virus which causes Aids.
Her husband died in 2004, a year before Malawi liberalised HIV treatment in both public and private health facilities. The bricklayer succumbed to pneumonia when opportunistic diseases that thrive on falling body immunity caused by the virus were claiming about 10 lives an hour.
“Five years after losing the breadwinner, I tested HIV-positive and I thought life was over. Life wasn’t worth living anymore,” she states.
For the mother-of-two in Chapita Village, Traditional Authority Nsamala in Balaka, things happened “too fast”.
“I was sickly when I went for HIV testing. The shocking result made me weep. Although my immunity was very low, I needed lengthy counselling to start treatment,” she recounts.
Due to hunger and denial, Kwasenga stopped treatment known to reduce the viral load to undetectable levels. In this way, she risked becoming resistant to antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) that have reduced Aids-related deaths from 64 200 to 13 000 a year since 2005.
“The previous ARVs had disturbing side-effects, including hallucinations and deformities that attracted untold stigma. I didn’t want to expose myself to degrading treatment,” she says.
However, Kwasenga’s turnaround came when her sister died of an Aids-related infection, leaving behind three children in her care.
“In a few months, the children changed homes like a baton in a relay race. Relatives rejected and accused them of being possessed by evil spirits. As such, I vowed to take the drugs faithfully and live longer for their sake since they had nowhere else to go,” she says.
Monthly cash transfers
Kwasenga’s fortunes further changed in 2016 when she was enrolled in Social Cash Transfer Programme (SCTP) where she receives electronically a monthly cash grant of K8 000.
The government-led social support programme is supported by Unicef with funding from Irish Aid in Balaka and Ntcheu.
Last year, the districts disbursed about K2.1 billion to over 21 000 households comprising 93 900 people, including 55 000 children.
From these cash-outs, Kwasenga has bought two goats, eight chickens, chairs and utensils. She has also extended a sheet-metal roof on her home to safeguard it from torrents and hailstorms. She also sells tomatoes and other farm produce in her homestead to increase household income.
She brags: “Thanks to the cash transfers, the children are healthy and doing well in school. They no longer go to school hungry. We can afford three meals a day. They have uniforms, pens, notebooks and soap. We used to sleep on mats, but now we have beds with mattresses.”
The children, aged 9 to 16, learn at Naliswe Primary School where Kwasenga withdraws the cash transfers from a mobile bank van.
From January to March, she was receiving a top-up of K23 000 per month to cushion her household from hunger, malnutrition and negative coping strategies like selling assets, withdrawing children from school for labour, transactional sex and eating less healthy food.
With the money, she bought food, furniture, fertiliser and maize seed. The family hopes to harvest 10 bags of maize from the field that produced just half a bag last growing season.
Steve Salilika, district social support services officer at Balaka District Council, is excited that beneficiaries are multiplying the cash transfers to escape poverty.
He explains: “The programme aims to improve the income, nutrition and school enrolment among households in extreme poverty, but now they are accumulating assets, including livestock, poultry, land and furniture.
“Children go to school and stay in class to learn. We hope they will keep learning to achieve their dreams.”
Putting children first
Unicef social protection officer George Juwawo is happy that the programme is contributing to government’s strategy to eliminate hunger and poverty in line with Sustainable Development Goals.
He says evaluations show that social cash transfers enhance livelihoods, including food security and diet diversification, improved housing, acquisition of assets and mushrooming of businesses.
“For Unicef, supporting poor families with cash transfers is helping build resilience and human capital for girls and boys who can look into the future with optimism as the next generation of leaders and citizens that will take Malawi forward,” Juwawo states.
And Kwasenga wants to leapfrog the past to forget. She looks younger, smarter and much healthier than her peers once imagined. She states: “I take good care of myself because of the children. Although they were denied by their relatives, I want them to succeed in school and become influential personalities so that those who treated them like outcasts can appreciate the power of education.”