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A woman living with HIV fights for better care in Malawi.
In Malawi, a mother living with HIV helps other young women break the cycle of disease.
Gertrude has a strong build that she carries with extraordinary grace at the weekly gatherings of HIV-positive patients where she dances and sings public health messages to crowds that grow larger by the week.
She embodies a comforting maternal presence that calms women living with HIV, many of whom feel overwhelmed by the stigma of living with the disease. For over 10 years, she has been leading the community to help fight the disease that has affected her so personally.
In 2002, Gertrude gave birth to a baby boy. He failed to put on weight, grew sick, and died before his second birthday. Distraught and searching for answers, Gertrude got tested for HIV and was found to have the virus. At a time when there was no district hospital or access to antiretroviral therapy (ART) in Neno, Malawi, this was a grim diagnosis. Even worse, with the odds already stacked against her, her husband left her when he discovered her status.
Where many women might have given up, Gertrude harnessed her natural charisma and leadership skills to mobilize fellow community members. Together, they launched an organization, the first of its kind in the region, dedicated to advocating for the rights of people living with HIV and raising awareness about the disease. To combat stigma and isolation, they revealed their own status and held community mobilization events that sought to encourage people to get tested and promote safe practices, despite the serious consequences this kind of exposure often carries.
“People said lots of things about me,” Gertrude explains. “When I went to gather water, people would run away. Children would sing songs, mocking me because I had HIV.”
When asked how she kept working, Gertrude answered, “A problem shared is already half solved. I needed to show people that if you have HIV, you are as strong as anyone else. That it’s important to get tested, because HIV does not mean you will die.”
Gertrude fought on, winning funds for her organization and attending conferences around Malawi.
In 2004, ART drugs were finally available at Queens Hospital, the major public hospital in Blantyre, capital of Malawi’s southern region. Every month, Gertrude walked through 60 kilometers (37 miles) of mountainous jungle terrain just to get to the closest paved road where she could hail a minibus to Blantyre. There, she waited in line all day and all night, often sleeping in line to get her ART. At several points over the years, she has contracted TB and has been forced to spend up to six months in the hospital for treatment.
Unbelievably, none of this seemed to slow her down.
In 2006, she founded and led the Neno AIDS Support Organization and provided critical mentorship and training to four other organizations around Neno, helping them flourish and join the fight against HIV. And Gertrude’s community-based efforts to fight stigma paved the way for PIH’s future success in rapidly scaling up HIV testing and antiretroviral therapy in Neno district, which began in 2007.
Gertrude has been accessing ART in Neno for five years now, in the same hospital where she now works as an attendant, keeping her viral load undetectable and helping her stay healthy. It came as little surprise when she was elected overwhelmingly to become vice president of the Neno Community Support Initiative at APZU, a position that allows her to leverage her experience in community mobilization to hold massive community outreach events.
Now, with over 4,000 individuals able to receive lifesaving ART in 13 health facilities across Neno, and over 1,000 on pre-ART, Gertrude is happy.
“It’s so much better now,” she says, “Not only is treatment available everywhere, but people get food support also. I can go to ART clinic any time now.”
Looking to the future, she wants to make sure the nine children she is raising—eight adopted from siblings who died of HIV—find happiness and success. “I have a vision of Malawi and the entire world free of HIV,” she said, a vision she works towards every day and invites us all to contribute to.
Learn more about PIH’s work in Malawi.