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Support and strength from The Tree
Thursday 21 October 2004
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SOUTH AFRICA: Support and strength from The Tree

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

©  IRIN/Kristin Palitza

Women meeting under The Tree

ILLOVO, 30 August (PLUSNEWS) - About 300 women and their children gather every Wednesday beneath a large tree just outside Illovo on South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal south coast to support and encourage one another in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

The tree has witnessed uncountable stories by women who were once victims, but are today empowered and knowledgeable about the epidemic.

It all started in 1996 when Jackie Branfield, an HIV/AIDS counsellor and social worker from neighbouring Amanzimtoti, decided to do something about the large numbers of women in the Illovo district who were being beaten up because they were suspected of being HIV-positive.

The area around Illovo is deeply rural - most of the women knew little about the pandemic, and even fewer were aware of their human rights.

In the mid-90s, Branfield met three destitute HIV-positive women who had been ostracised because of their status. She went with them to the tree, away from the curious stares of the community, to talk to them about the virus, how it is transmitted, and about their rights.

The three women knew others who had suffered similar abuse, and the initiative snowballed. Branfield has involved a number of voluntary counsellors to assist and now has a register of more than 500 women who regularly attend sessions at what has become known simply as the "The Tree".

Women living in remote rural areas cut off from public transport, or unable to afford minibus taxi fare, walk up to three hours to reach the meeting place, explained Sweetness Somi, one of The Tree's voluntary helpers.

"When I attended The Tree for the first time, everyone was lost in the mist - nobody knew anything about HIV/AIDS," she recalled. Since then the situation has changed and every week the women receive education about the virus - transmission, prevention and positive living.

"We teach, help and respect each other," added Somi. "We have nothing much in life, but together we are strong."

Since no one learns well on an empty stomach and hunger is often seen as a more immediate problem than HIV/AIDS, there is soup and bread for the women and their children. Branfield and her team also organise food and clothing donations.

"Jackie is like a mother to us," said Ladyfair from Illovo township, an unemployed single parent of two daughters and a granddaughter who has been attending The Tree since 1998. "If there is someone who didn't get anything that day, if there hasn't been enough for everyone, Jackie will take off her own shoes and give them to this person."

A nurse and other volunteers sit on a patch of grass beside the tree and examine adults and children, treat sores, wounds and other minor injuries and illnesses in what is commonly called the Tree Clinic.

Cyril Mvuni from the African Christian Democratic Party - one of the first men to support the group - assists women with filling out and following up on grant applications. The local politician, who sees himself as "the link between the people and the government", said he submits more than 30 applications for women from The Tree every week.

The initiative also recognises the link between HIV/AIDS and abuse, rape, domestic violence and child molestation, and helping to report cases to the police and social workers has become an increasingly important task of The Tree team and the women.

The power of this fairly basic type of support structure is not to be underestimated. In the past, the police had often sent away women reporting cases of domestic violence, said Branfield, but now officers were helpful when they heard that the woman belonged to The Tree. "They know that - otherwise, 300 women will march in front of the police station and demand their rights," she added.

One of the original three women who helped launch The Tree is Khulelaphi from Sqhingini, a rural village north of Illovo. In 1996, Khulelaphi was a domestic worker and single parent with eight small children she could not clothe and hardly feed. She claimed she was paid with food instead of money.

Khulelaphi's children were in a wretched state, and medical examinations later found that some had been abused by neighbours while she was at work. Khulelaphi became The Tree's first major case. Branfield counselled the woman and her children, brought them to a medical clinic and then to a police station to report the abuse, and arranged a meeting with a social worker, as well as food and clothes.

"I realised that there are many more woman like this and that something had to be done to help them," said Branfield.

Some people in the community did not like Khulelaphi involving social workers and police in "their" affairs and burned down her house. Since then she and her children have been living with a neighbour, as they do not have the money to rebuild.

Nonetheless, Khulelaphi said her life has improved tremendously since she attended The Tree for the first time. She has a job that enables her to feed her family and she knows about AIDS, abuse and how to protect her children. "Jackie and The Tree helped me so much. They gave me hope to live," she said.


Recent SOUTH AFRICA Reports
AIDS orphan village planned,  12/Oct/04
HIV/AIDS care centre not being fully utilised,  8/Oct/04
Using theatre to encourage HIV testing,  6/Oct/04
Vaccine research struggles to find trial participants,  5/Oct/04
Countering the impact of child abuse,  27/Sep/04
VIH Internet
Sida Info Services
Le Fonds mondial de lutte contre le SIDA, la tuberculose et le paludisme
Le Réseau Afrique 2000

PlusNews does not take responsibility for info in links supplied.

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