columnBy Cathrine Murombedzi
"THIS cannot happen to me. I cannot be HIV positive," is all that one youth said to Mrs Tariro Chikwanha of Zengeza 4. The youth looked sickly and Mrs Chikwanha had enquired if she had ever taken an HIV test. Mrs Chikwanha runs an organisation, Dreams HIV and Aids Youth Network which she registered as a trust in 2008. She works from Utano Clinic in Chitungwiza, where she lives.
She is passionate about the youth as she has noted with concern that they are the most at risk population of contracting HIV.
"The youth are in my view the population at high risk of contracting HIV. Today we have our generation which is in the forties and fifties. They contracted the virus 20 or so years back and if we do not have strong programmes to see less or no new infections in the under-25s then we can have a lost generation which can perish as did most of our generation in the 90s and early 2000," said Mrs Chikwanha.
Mrs Chikwana tested HIV positive in 1997 after her husband got seriously ill.
"My husband got very sick and was admitted in hospital. He tested HIV positive and I was counselled and also asked to take the test," she said.
Mrs Chikwanha said back then information on HIV and Aids was scarce and it was so scary when one tested HIV positive.
"It was like a death sentence back then, there was general lack of understanding even in the medical fraternity. It was through the work of champions like the late Lynde Francis that we got a shoulder to lean on," she said.
Lynde Francis, who opened The Centre which was one of the first clinics to offer ART, encouraged HIV positive people to stick to nutritional food which wards off a host of opportunistic infections.
"Lynde Francis taught good nutrition to those living with HIV and Aids as a way to boost immune systems broken down or threatened by the virus. Before 2000 ART was either experimental or still too expensive for most Zimbabweans. She bolstered our health with vitamin supplements, simple garlic, iron tablets and later on cotrimoxazole," said Mrs Chikwanha.
"My husband could not make it to the advent of ART. He sadly died in 2000 after having suffered so much," said Mrs Chikwanha.
Mrs Chikwanha said the greatest hurdle then was stigma and discrimination.
"The health personnel at the clinics told me that I could live for a year or even months so there was nothing much they could do. The feeling was like being sent to an early grave," she said.
Despite the negative reactions, Lynde Francis remained a pillar of support for Mrs Chikwanha and those living positively as she counselled them time and again.
"My family did not make life any better for my husband and myself. They stopped using utensils I used. Any food I touched was thrown away for fear of getting infected. They were so ignorant but that did not deter me from living openly," she said.
Mrs Chikwanha said the family's perception today has changed as they now refer relatives and friends to her for further counselling.
"My family is now understanding. In the case of a family member or relative testing HIV positive, they refer them to me for further counselling. I have talked people out of death beds when they had lost hope and am happy to say that I am making positive change in my family and community," she added.
Mrs Chikwanha said her organisation focuses on youths.
"I found out that youths are at higher risk of contracting the HIV virus so I have focused on them. I found it useful that youths at risk needed awareness for sexual reproductive health.
"Some youths still believe that they cannot get HIV so they rush to think that they have been bewitched yet they do not know their HIV status," said Mrs Chikwanha.
She added: "I have seen that some girls cannot say no to a love proposal even from an old man. This stems from relying on a man for survival, cash benefits and I have seen that empowering youths is an effective way around this challenge," she added.
Mrs Chikwanha said that giving the youths daily handouts is not the way to go but to give them the basic skills training.
"I have seen that one can give youths cash handouts but without empowerment that is good as dead. Give them the fishing line not the fish," she added.
Mrs Chikwanha's organisation runs a project in freezit making and jewellery design. They make necklaces from beads.
"We make bangles, hair clips and we have a successful project that supplies freezits to the community.
"Odenne Francis, daughter to the late Lynde Francis, has been one of our biggest clients. She supports our programmes with a passion. She also pays school fees for two orphans in our community," she said.
Mrs Chikwanha said some orphans and vulnerable children in the community lived under very difficult scenarios.
"We have two orphans who lost both parents and were living with relatives. They were abused and also lacked proper assistance to ART adherence. I work hand-in-glove with the Social Welfare Department and when they brought one of the girls her CD4 count was 20. She was ill and I am glad that she is now in school and healthy. She has her fees paid for by Sedar Trust," said Mrs Chikwanha.
She added: "This special child lacked supervision in taking her medication. She was already on second line ART so with no proper monitoring we can end up losing the youths."
Mrs Chikwanha intends to take the teenager for a review CD4 count test this school holiday.
"Children born HIV positive can just stop taking their medication when they feel it's not their fault so they need support and recounselling, monitoring and love," said Mrs Chikwanha.
Mrs Chikwanha said that it was difficult for a 16-year-old who had never attended school to begin formal education with six- or seven- year-old pupils. She has one such child who today is tutored from home again with the private teacher paid for by Sedar Trust.
"This 16-year-old is learning to read and write, basic infant stuff and she could not fit in a formal school so Sedar Trust is paying for her private tutorials," she added.
Mrs Chikwanha said they usually had shortages of sanitary pads.
"Child-headed families usually lack enough food and through the organisation's projects we manage to stretch the dollar although it is tough," said Mrs Chikwanha.
Mrs Chikwanha added that they have embarked on a plastic recycling project in Chitungwiza.
"We are collecting plastic containers and we will recycle them when we have a large quantity. We have a partner who promised to come and buy the material next year," she said.
Mrs Chikwanha urged foster carers to look very closely at the children they have as their own.
"I call on foster parents to monitor the children's health, ensure they are taking their medication, adhering to treatment and that there is zero stigma.
"We recently lost a girl who was not taking treatment as recommended. After this I trained youth focal persons who drive the message home," said Mrs Chikwanha.
She said most youths find it difficult to accept that they are HIV positive. Even after awareness campaigns some youths living positively fail to be meaningfully involved in community projects due to self stigma.
"Meaningful Involvement of People Living with Aids (MIPA) is not fully recognised because the youths are not open. I therefore urge the youths that acceptance of one's status is the first step to healing then treatment follows.
"In the new year, funds permitting I would like to take on youths in peri-urban areas. Most programmes do not cover the farming communities and we find that they lack in basic HIV awareness and knowledge, even condom distribution in these areas is stifled.
"It is therefore not unusual to find a 13- or 14-year-old girl already a mother. By18 such girls are already mothers of three kids, which is unfortunate.
"This goes to show that youths especially girls are not in charge of their sexual reproductive health rights and they need to be empowered in that light," she added.
SafAids and partners are currently mapping a regional approach to sexual reproductive health rights for young women.