Rumphi — pic by Taonga Nyirenda
The spread of HIV/AIDS to Malawi in 1985 brought with it many myths and misconceptions.
What was more crystal clear was widespread discrimination towards those diagnosed with the virus.
People living with HIV and Aids were sidelined by society, which believed the virus could be transmitted even through chatting or eating together with an infected person.
HIV was then associated with promiscuous behaviour and one was wrongly considered as such if tested positive.
Infected ones were seen in society as receiving the first scourge of their punishment.
As such, the knowledge gap that HIV brought with it in the mid 1980's, created widespread discrimination against those who were diagnosed with the virus.
Over the years, government and other stakeholders have brought in interventions to get rid of the many myths and misconceptions surrounding HIV/Aids.
The interventions have been focusing on scrapping off discrimination and stigma against people living with the virus.
Among the activities include HIV/Aids awareness campaigns which reach climax on December 1, World Aids Day, every year.
This is the day when government and the other stakeholders in the country join the rest of the world to remember those affected by HIV/Aids and raise awareness on the existence of the pandemic.
There is usually a national event followed by district functions held on different days across the country.
However, a visit to Mphompha in Rumphi District, 33 years after HIV was diagnosed in Malawi, one finds communities still discriminating and stigmatising people living with the virus.
In Traditional Authority Mwankhunikira, horrifying images of stigma and discrimination are vivid in Senior Group Village Head (GVH) Chivwenene's area in Mphompha.
Mphompha is in Rumphi Central Constituency, about 17 kilometres off the M1 road to the east.
In this hard-to reach area, being HIV positive leads to excommunication from society.
Twenty-year-old Rose Kanyenda of Mwachiluwilira Village got married at the age of 17 in 2015 but just after a year, her marriage was on the rocks. She was divorced with a five-month-old pregnancy.
While at her parents' home she went for antenatal clinic where she sadly tested HIV positive. Since then, life has been a living hell for her.
"After disclosing the news to my aunt and later to my father, she evicted me from her house where I was staying.
"I opted to stay with my grandmother, a decision that did not please my father.
"He recalled me from my grandmother's place to his house only to be told later that I should start living alone for fear of infecting the entire family," Kanyenda says.
She was eventually forced out of her father's house to live in a secluded single roomed makeshift house specifically built for her.
Kanyenda says she is not allowed to mingle with her brothers and sisters.
"I cannot eat with them or use any of their kitchen utensils," she says.
Now Kanyenda is helpless and feels her future is doomed as she struggles to provide basic necessities for her three-year-old child.
"I rely on daily piece works to earn something to keep my life and that of my kid going," she says.
About three kilometers from Mwachiluwilira Village, we meet another 20-year-old Donafegi Nyasulu of Chagwaza Village who is also subjected to stigma and discrimination.
She says since she got married in 2017, her husband's relatives have been insulting her for disclosing her HIV status.
"My mother in-law says she cannot touch my child because he is HIV positive.
"I have not been at peace since I got married in 2017 because my in-laws insult me a lot," Nyasulu says.
She adds that now she does not associate with everybody in the village because she was given boundaries as to where she can go or not.
"I have been rejected by people who are supposed to take care of me.
"They argue that I may infect the whole village. Now I'm nobody's friend; always alone," Nyasulu says.
Kanyenda and Nyasulu are being stigmatised and discriminated against for living with HIV though Malawi's Republican Constitution outlaws such malpractices.
Chapter IV of the constitution says every member of the family shall enjoy full and equal respect and shall be protected by law against all forms of violence.
Again, Article 2 of the African Charter on Human and People's Rights, which Malawi signed, prohibits discrimination of persons in any form.
The article states that all persons are under law guaranteed equal and effective protection against discrimination on any grounds.
Issues of stigma and discrimination are common in most rural areas of Rumphi and Mphompha area is not exceptional. However, most of the cases are left unreported.
These issues came to light when a consortium of Rumphi Women's Forum (RUWF) and Coalition of Women Living with HIV/AIDS (COWLHA) with funding from ActionAid conducted an assessment in the district.
The assessment was done to promote access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support and non-discriminatory access to social services such as education, health care and equal employment opportunities.
RUWF Women's Rights Coordinator Tiwonge Gondwe says the assessment revealed that people living with HIV still face stigma and discrimination, a situation that calls for action.
"Issues of stigma and discrimination frustrate efforts in reducing new HIV infections, prevention and care.
"Therefore, there is need for urgent response to the challenges faced by people living with HIV/AIDS in the area," Gondwe says.
She adds that with the continued stigma and discrimination, the goal to end the epidemic by 2030 under the global 90-90-90 targets will be a big challenge to attain.
"How could 90 percent of people living with HIV know their HIV status? How could 90 percent of all people diagnosed with HIV infection receive sustained antiretroviral therapy (ART)?
"And how could 90 percent of people receiving treatment have their viral load suppressed within that time frame if stigma is the order of the day?" Gondwe asks.
Mphompha Area Development Committee (ADC) Chairperson Brown Munthali acknowledges that cases of stigma and discrimination are rampant in the area and that many go unreported.
He attributes the challenge to inadequate civic education to communities.
Munthali argues that interventions on reducing stigma and discrimination from stakeholders are very minimal in the area hence people have little knowledge on HIV and Aids.
"Stigma and discrimination are rarely reported due to lack of serious interventions on HIV/AIDS related issues either by government or non-governmental organizations.
"What I have observed is that people have not been informed enough; that's why they are clinging to the myths and misconceptions of HIV/AIDS while other communities have moved on," Munthali says.
GVH Mwachiluwilira of Mphompha says he was shocked when he heard that some people were being stigmatised for living with HIV.
"I engaged the accused parents to establish the truth on the matter because it is my responsibility," Mwachiluwilira says.
He adds that the parents said they built a secluded house for their daughter because she did not follow some cultural beliefs during her delivery, a situation which could "contaminate" other people.
"I advised the parents to stop discriminating their child based on any grounds whether cultural beliefs or her HIV status because she, too, has the right to be taken care of by them," Mwachiluwilira says.
Even Senior GVH Chivwenene admitted hearing case where Nyasulu sued her mother in-law at a village court for insulting her because of being HIV positive.
"The mother in-law pleaded guilty to the charge and was ordered to pay K5, 000 to Nyasulu, which she obliged.
"She was advised to stop discriminating her daughter in-law because of her HIV status," Chivwenene says.
Rumphi District Council Senior Nutrition and HIV/Aids Coordinator, Blessings Kanyangale, acknowledges that stigma and discrimination refuse to die in Mphompha and other areas.
But Kanyangale says his office is incapacitated to deal with the challenge due to inadequate resources to reach hard-to-reach areas like Mphompha with awareness messages.
"We don't have adequate funding to run activities in such areas; we, therefore, urge stakeholders to come in and help fight stigma and discrimination to people living with HIV and Aids," he says.