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Community activists help children and families cope with HIV/AIDS in Mozambique

© UNICEF/HQ04-0384/ Thomas
Left to right: Sisters Laura, Cremilda and Anastacia – 14, 12 and 10 years old, respectively – sit outside their home in the coastal district of Xai Xai, north Maputo. Both of the girls' parents died from AIDS-related illnesses.

By Alexia Lewnes

MAPUTO CITY, Mozambique, 2 March 2006 – Playing in his front yard in Maputo, 13-year-old Antonio looks no different from his four younger cousins. He giggles and laughs and talks about being an engineer when he grows up. He wants to build tall buildings one day.

But this was not always the case. Three years ago, Antonio was very sick. He had frequent stomach aches, and his body was covered with sores. Often he had to leave school because he was too sick to attend classes.

Antonio’s parents had died of AIDS, and when he was tested for HIV the result was positive. He and his siblings now live with their uncle, who has four children of his own.

’Now I’m much happier’

Antonio is just one of the 91,000 children, 80 per cent of them under the age of five, who are living with HIV/AIDS in Mozambique. But Antonio is lucky. Soon after he was diagnosed, he began receiving antiretroviral drugs, a crucial treatment to which few in the country have access. By the end of 2005, only 1,500 children under 15 were receiving antiretroviral treatment – less than 3 per cent of the total in need.

Now, Antonio takes three pills, four times each day, at 6 a.m., 2 p.m., 6 p.m. and 10 p.m.  “I feel good,” he says. “I have no more sores on my skin and I don’t have to leave school. I used to feel sad, but now I’m much happier because I can play.”

His uncle is even more pleased with Antonio’s emotional transformation. “Antonio used to always be a quiet child, but I never knew if it was because he was always sick,” he says. “After he went on the medicine, he started playing with his cousins and making friends.”

Now Antonio rarely misses school. He plays soccer and laughs with other children. He is often seen singing along to his favourite artists on the radio while dancing around the house.

Access to services

Unlike so many who are affected by HIV, Antonio is getting help to cope with the disease from Kindlimuka (‘wake up’ in the local Ronga language), an association organized by people living with HIV/AIDS. Over the years, Kindlimuka has provided Antonio and his family with food, school materials and uniforms, and other support.

Kindlimuka, the first group of its kind in the country, was founded in 1996. Today it has more than 150 members, the great majority of whom are HIV-positive. Every day, activists from Kindlimuka visit children affected by HIV/AIDS throughout Maputo City and Maputo Province. Among other efforts, the association members:

  • Help families obtain birth certificates so they can have access to public health care and other social services
  • Refer children to hospitals for antiretroviral treatment
  • And prepare ‘memory books’ to help children remember and grieve for parents who have died of AIDS.

At the end of 2005, Kindlimuka was assisting some 2,250 children and delivering packages with milk, rice, beans, sugar, cooking oil and soap  to 100 families each month. The association also offers classes at its centre in Maputo City, teaching skills such as drawing, sewing, welding and even theatre to members of the community.
“Kindlimuka has given us a lot of emotional support,” says 16-year-old Gina, Antonio’s older sister. “They’ve taught me how to express my feelings through drama and art.”

Fear of stigma

The neighbours don’t know that Antonio is HIV-positive, and neither do his younger cousins. Antonio himself doesn’t know how his parents died or why he would often get sick. He only knows that he needs to take his medication so he won’t fall ill again.

“The person who is sick [with HIV] won’t leave the house for fear of discrimination. They feel isolated and hopeless,” says Anifa Ibrahim, a coordinator at Kindlimuka.

It is this fear of stigma and discrimination that drives Antonio’s uncle to keep his nephew’s HIV status a secret. And it is the uncle’s great fear that the secret may come out one day.

“I worry that if people find out, there will be discrimination,” he says. “I want to protect him as long as possible. This disease is still not accepted.”



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