Hope and HIV in Malawi

Blog from Malawi – also available on Huffington Post

It took 10 minutes for me to witness despair in the optimistically-titled ‘Corridors of Hope’.

It must seem like a cruel name to those being tested for HIV in the small, sparse rooms along this hallway in Dedza District Hospital in Malawi.

There was little hope in the eyes of the father I sat with shortly after he learnt he was living with HIV. Cradling his son in his arms, together they faced the agonising wait for the boy’s test results.

In just 600 seconds, the four-year-old would hear whether he was the latest of 930,000 people in this small African country who are HIV positive.

But there is hope.


Lilian Hara is a Community Health Nurse at the HIV Testing and Counselling Centre in Dezda. Picture: Emily Gray/DFID

While 68,000 people die of AIDS-related illnesses here every year, HIV/AIDS no longer needs to be a death sentence. I am in Malawi to see how the Department for International Development‘s support is making an impact on the ground and reviewing how British development aid can be made even more effective.

Our funding means the father I met will become one of thousands of people who receive counselling and advice on living with HIV and the much-needed anti-retroviral treatmentswhich will help him lead a normal life.

The hospital also sees 5,000 pregnant women every year and for those who test positive, helps prevent transmission of the virus from mother to child. The work of this hospital and others like it has helped bring HIV prevalence rates down from 11.3% to 7.5% in the last 10 years.


The local centre is helping to stop HIV being transmitted to children in the Dezda area. Picture: Emily Gray/DFID

Preventing the spread of HIV is vital if we are ever going to reach our ultimate goal of the ‘three zeros’ – zero new HIV infections, zero stigma and discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths.

Because the high rate of infection is closely linked to gender disparity and violence against women and girls, I also visited a pioneering policing unit to support victims of gender based violence.

More than 40% of Malawian women have experienced physical or sexual violence – while 60% of girls and 35% of boys have also experienced some form of abuse. For the first time, those in Dedza have a safe haven where they can report the crimes, receive counselling, mediation and advice.

Prosecutions are being pursued more vigorously now – though this may be little comfort to those victims left with HIV. That’s why the Department for International Develompent (DFID) is also working with the poorest communities so they can set up support groups to tackle the spread of HIV/AIDS and help those who are positive live healthy lives free from discrimination.

One HIV positive lady I met told me she set up a support group because her best friends looked at her husband and her “like dead people” and children refused to play with her kids when they learned of her status.

She said the work of the support group has reduced the stigma attached to HIV and the despair of those living with it as people realise “there is still a life to live”.

That’s her message to the devastated father sitting in the Corridors of Hope.

With continued commitment from the Government of Malawi, support from NGOs and donors such as DFID, and real effort from the communities themselves – we can turn hope into certainty.

The one certainty I can pass on now is that after the 10 minute wait, the father’s four-year-old boy tested negative. I just hope he stays that way.

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