Blantyre — HIV-positive civil servants in Malawi are unhappy with the government's announcement that it would stop providing a cash grant to help improve their diet.
In June, the government said the scheme would be stopped and replaced with food packages. According to Mary Shawa, principal secretary in the office of the President and Cabinet responsible for and nutrition programmes, the cash grant programme "was grossly abused, with hundreds of workers claiming to have HIV in order to cash in on the payment".
Shawa said most civil servants were not using the money for its intended purpose to buy extra food and improve nutrition: "Some people used the money to buy beers and go out with prostitutes, further spreading the virus."
The cash grant was part of the civil service workplace programme aimed at improving nutrition among people living with HIV, most of whom receive a monthly salary of less than US$100.
Aston Chirwa, an office assistant in one of the government departments in the commercial capital Blantyre, told News that the $35 monthly allowance had been a lifeline for him and his family, as his meagre income was barely enough to pay his daughter's high school fees. "The allowance was really making a big difference to my survival."
Chirwa is among nearly 40,000 civil servants with HIV, out of about 170,000, who have been receiving the allowance since 2007.
"The money was not only meant to buy food, I would use it for transportation to Chiradzulu District hospital where I receive ARVs," he added.
AIDS activists have questioned the government's decision to introduce the food hamper, which is equivalent to the previous monthly allowance.
"It's tricky because it's not automatic that everyone will like the food to be given. We are human beings too and have various tastes," said Chirwa.
The president of the Civil Servants' Union, Elias Kamphinda Banda, described the government's switch to food parcels as an insult to the privacy of HIV-positive civil servants.
"It's like the government was tricking these people just to expose them to issues that were to do with confidentiality. It's too confidential for one to declare his or her status. And for the government to come out and say that 'we have changed our mind' is very unfortunate."
Last month, at least 18 people were killed during protests sparked by the country's growing economic crisis as well as widespread dissatisfaction over the government's handling of the problem. Malawi, dependent for 40 percent of its budget on donors, has fallen out of favour with western donors following concerns about human rights and poor governance, and funding has either been withheld or not renewed. The result has been new taxes and adjustments to existing ones. The government has also announced a freeze in the recruitment of civil servants and reduction in foreign travel by the president, ministers and civil servants.
Banda said that crates of eggs and cooking oil were nothing compared with the allowance. "I think government is coming up with some funny decisions because of a lack of consultations. We wonder about the allegations because we have never sat down with government to discuss any form of misuse of the money by HIV civil servants. That is a lie."
In addition, there was no guarantee that the food packages would not be abused. "How sure are you that if you are giving the commodities one cannot exchange them for beer or give it to prostitutes?"
Half of Malawi's 13 million citizens live on less than $1 a day and are unable to meet their nutritional needs. About 14 percent of the country's population is HIV-positive, and the government estimates that it is now providing free ARVs to 366,000 people.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]