Community-based counsellors are making a difference

ZIMBABWE: Community-based counsellors are making a difference


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Most counselling and testing takes place in urban areas

HARARE, 30 Aug 2005 (PLUSNEWS) - In an attempt to reduce the psychosocial impact of the AIDS epidemic, Zimbabwean communities have started an innovative community-based counselling initiative across the country.

Until recently it was inconceivable for 48 year-old Mildred Mutumwapavi of Zaka District to talk openly about the HIV/AIDS in the community, let alone to regularly visit and counsel people living with and affected by the disease. But her attitude has changed: not only is she a trained community counsellor, she is also active in Zaka district, some 370 km southeast of the capital, Harare.

"It was taboo to talk about AIDS, but it was even more difficult to talk to people infected or even affected by the disease - it was as if you were afraid that the disease would rub on. Most of the time you would see friends and relatives wasting away, grieving and lonely, but there was nothing you could do about it; instead, you kept your distance," Mutumwapavi told PlusNews.

"My heart would go out to the children - I knew they were hurting after the loss of their parents. Sometimes I could give them a bundle of vegetables from my garden, but I could see it was not enough - they needed someone to talk to about their loss. The grieving would go on for years, but I did not know how to talk to them; I was afraid I would say the wrong thing," she said. "It was not until I heard about the counselling training that I knew I could make a difference."

This unique community-based initiative by the AIDS and TB unit of the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare, supported by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), will target 50,000 households in its first phase.

Most counselling initiatives in Zimbabwe take place in urban areas and use professional counsellors, but this programme is using community members, who are familiar with their clients and are always available.

Alleta Makotore, acting Voluntary Counselling and Testing (VCT) officer in the health ministry, said the innovative method of counselling would provide the missing link between communities and the formal health structures.

"HIV/AIDS has created a host of challenges for our communities, and counselling will try to ease some of these burdens by providing a trained ear to those who have been adversely affected by the epidemic," she noted.

To date 30,000 counsellors have been trained. "Empowering communities and equipping their members with much-needed skills is key to much of UNICEF's work in Zimbabwe ... peer counselling on HIV/AIDS is a monumental step, taking a critical service to the people," said UNICEF Representative Dr Festo Kavishe.

Community-based workers will provide counselling on an array of issues affecting children and adults, including domestic violence and sexual abuse, voluntary counselling and testing, prevention of parent-to-child transmission (PPTCT) and other HIV/AIDS-related issues, and bereavement.

"Every week I counsel at least five to six clients who are living with HIV, then two or three cases of domestic violence," said Mutumwapavi.

The counsellors work in collaboration with the traditional leadership in their communities and have also cultivated an effective referral system with the police.

Maxwell Jaji, a male counsellor from Buhera district, said community-based counsellors were making a difference in the lives of their clients.

He noted that in Zimbabwean communities men were supposed to show strength and often suffered in silence without receiving any counselling, but most men felt comfortable with him and would seek him out for counselling rather than his female colleagues.

"Sometimes clients come and they [just want to] die; it is only after you have spoken to them that you see they have renewed energy to living. It is a good thing to feel you did something about giving them back their lives," Jaji commented.

Zimbabwe has the fourth highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the world, while 160,000 children will experience the death of a parent in 2005.

"No one denies the challenges that Zimbabwe - and many southern African countries - face with HIV/AIDS," said UNICEF's Dr Kavishe. "People need to educate each other on safe sex, to confront all forms of stigmatisation and, as in this programme, support those already affected by HIV. Only in these ways can HIV/AIDS be defeated."

[ENDS]


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