SWAZILAND: The triumph over fear

Photo: WFP/Richard Lee
AIDS leaves a trail of orphans
Mbabane, 6 February 2007 (PlusNews) - In a remarkable reversal of perceptions about AIDS, public testing by religious and business leaders is changing attitudes towards both the disease and being tested for it.

As recently as two years ago, most Swazis believed that testing was necessary only for those displaying symptoms of the disease, such as rapid weight loss. Now, public testing is leading to a greater understanding of HIV/AIDS, which, according to UNAIDS, infects 33.4 percent of the adult population - the world's highest prevalence rate.

As part of an HIV/AIDS programme backed by the Swaziland Chamber of Commerce and Industry and employer organisations, the South African-owned bank, Nedbank, following in the footsteps of another South African corporate, Standard Bank, invited local media to its Swaziland headquarters in the capital, Mbabane, last week, to see banking executives and workers taking HIV tests. It was, according to one corporate publicist, "the triumph over fear." The results remain confidential.

Five years ago, when one of the country's largest manufacturing companies based at Matsapha, an industrial site 30km east of Mbabane, proposed that workers have private and confidential HIV testing, workers went on strike. The company's HIV testing proposal was made in response to high absenteeism rates, blamed on illness, and an inordinate death rate among company employees, blamed on HIV/AIDS. The workers refused to take tests, because they said the factory would be come known as "the AIDS place".

The behavioural change towards testing is being seen as a watershed moment by health activists involved in the fight against the disease.

"This is a positive development, a real trend we are seeing. It shows that stigmatisation against people living with HIV and AIDS may be lessening. Before, people were afraid to get tested out of worry that others would think they had AIDS," Thembi Khoza, a volunteer counsellor and test administrator at Matsapha, told IRIN/PlusNews.

"I think there is a link between people's willingness to undergo HIV testing, even publicly, and some even announcing their results publicly, and the decline we are starting to see in the infection numbers. People are more aware; they want to take care of themselves," Khoza said.

In another display of public testing this week, 20 pastors took HIV tests, making front-page news in a country where HIV/AIDS has long been linked with sexual promiscuity.

"One reason people were afraid to admit to being HIV positive, or feared even testing, was that they'd be blamed for loose morals: they were treated as sinners. Now so many people are infected - husbands and wives, children born HIV-positive - it's hard to be so condemning," said Sarah Khumalo of the Manzini Dioceses HIV/AIDS Programme, located in Manzini, the country's commercial hub.

The pastors have also vowed to publicly reveal their HIV status, whatever it might be, at the launch in April of the Swaziland Network for Religious Leaders Living with HIV, a new nongovernmental organisation.

"The admission by church leaders that they have HIV will really be a blow to stigmatisation," said Khoza. According to reports by UNAIDS, people believed to be HIV-positive had been ostracised by some church congregations.

Bongani Langa, coordinator of the National Church Forum, an umbrella body for Christian congregations, said 156 Swazi church leaders had received training in HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, and 70 percent of them had undergone voluntary HIV tests.

Khumalo believed the greater availability of antiretroviral drugs was also changing attitudes towards testing. "People were told that AIDS was a death sentence; there used to be fear. People thought, 'What's the use? I don't want to know if I'm going to die'. There's still no cure, but you can live a long life with the new medicines - that's made a difference."


Theme (s): Stigma/Human Rights/Law - PlusNews,

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

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