The level of pain and suffering that women and children face due to the HIV and AIDS pandemic is almost unimaginable.
Children around the world are becoming the heads of households as their parents die or are too sick to care for their families. Outside Mzuzu, Malawi, I met a little nine-year old girl, Anna. Beside her was her six-year-old sister. In a nearby mud hut with a leaky ceiling, her mother was dying from AIDS, a small baby snuggled beside her. Anna was struggling to care for all four of them. Early every morning, Anna walked two miles and carried back on her head a container of fresh water. Daily she scrambled to find food from neighbors as she battled for survival.
In every small village in Malawi, I was surrounded by multitudes of orphans and vulnerable children. Near Mzuzu, my friends tried to organize an art project, but it failed because there was no room on the dirt floor for the children to put the paper down so they could draw on it. Furthermore, the children were so hungry that they nibble on the crayons.
Impoverished women experience a high rate of illiteracy in the world. Their options for making a living are incredibly limited. If a woman’s husband dies from AIDS, malaria or tuberculosis she often has no resources to feed her family except to sell her body by doing commercial sex work. The amount she earns is a pittance, and daily she risks violence, disease, police harassment, and public degradation.
Several times I have met with groups of these women in India, and they yeam for freedom from sexual slavery and for economic empowerment so they can feed themselves and their kids. One program the Center for the church and Global AIDS supports has helped a number of women escape to a better life. A simple sewing machine, costing less than $100, has enabled a woman named Sudha to earn extra money to start her own business. In another case, I helped deliver monthly nutritional supplements to Harshini and her daughter-just enough to stabilize her health and keep her in paying job so she would not have to revert to “survival sex” work.
Too often in Africa, women seeking to be self-sustaining are forced to choose between making beads for sale or selling own bodies. The marketing of trinket like jewelry is limited, so many females have no real choice, needed are humanitarian entrepreneurs who will help create social businesses for women living wit HIV. In Kenya I saw HIV-positive creating malaria bed nets. A major market exists for this product. This one small group of women in the past three years has made and sold 21,427 nets.
The Rev. Don Messer is executive director of the Center for the Church and Global AIDS and chair of the UMCOR-supported United Methodist Global AIDS Fund.