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Volunteerism championing fight against HIV and Aids in Malawi
19 December 2005
by Susan Muguro

Manet, Malawi: On a typical day at the Mzuzu Central Hospital, Hilda Matalala tested 20 blood samples for HIV, counselled up to 10 patients and treated 30 patients with sexually transmitted infections. During her two years at the hospital, she trained six support groups of people living with HIV and Aids in positive living and psychosocial counselling.

Hilda, a nurse, is a United Nations Volunteer (UNV) and currently deployed to Manet. She is involved in training and support for post-test clubs in Mwanza, Blantyre, Mzimba and Kasungu districts. Her reputation in training and counselling in living positively with HIV and Aids precedes her, and more organisations are seeking her services. 

Hilda is one of millions of self-motivated individuals globally, channelling their time, skills, creativity and knowledge through volunteerism, responding to crises, increasing human capacity in underdeveloped sectors and advocating for equitable social policy.

December 5 was adopted in 1985 as the International Volunteers’ Day to recognize and applaud the tremendous effort of volunteers in economic and social development of society. At the village, in the hospital and schools, during elections and disasters, managing offices and resources, volunteers are playing every imaginable role in shaping society. Yet, volunteerism is rarely recognised as a strong strategic resource that influences public policy.

In a country grappling with recurring famine, chronic poverty and high illiteracy rates, the HIV and Aids pandemic adds a delicate facet, stretching the national capacity to its limit. Volunteers are the foot soldiers in the fight against HIV and Aids in Malawi through their altruistic integration of personal experience and community empowerment. Volunteer action is reversing stigma and influencing behavioural change within communities.

Lawrence Chafuwa is attached to Baptist Mission Hospital in Senga Bay, Salima, where he is implementing a HIV and Aids outreach programme for the Hospital. He uses his experience living positively with HIV and Aids, with members of staff and the community to break the silence on the disease and advocate support for Aids patients. Through his advocacy, funds were raised to open volunteer, counselling and testing centre at the hospital and run a home-based care programme.

Hilda and Lawrence work within the Greater Involvement of People with Aids (Gipa) programme, which recruits persons living with HIV and Aids who are open about their HIV status. They work as United Nations Volunteers in selected organizations.

The concept was first discussed at the 1994 Paris Aids Summit where People Living with HIV and Aids (PLWHAs) and their organizations were recognised as one of the most powerful agents of behaviour change and ambassadors of hope.

Patricia O’loghlen, Programme Officer, United Nations Volunteer explains: “Working with sero-positive individuals on a daily basis, and having a name and face to associate with the concept of “a person with HIV or Aids” helps people overcome their fears and prejudices.
“The association is normally with a virus or terrible disease and not functional people, living a normal active life. They face the same challenges of food insecurity, inadequate health facilities and low incomes, but are more vulnerable.”

Christine Chimbe started Chanzi Fellowship for People Living with HIV and Aids (Fepha) with four people living with HIV and Aids. Today, the support group comprises 46 people.

Their openness about their status has tremendously increased community care and support for people affected by HIV and Aids in Nkhotakota District. More people are now visiting the Volunteer Counselling and Testing (VCT) Centre and receiving treatment with the support of the district hospital and other partners. Currently 103 orphans are receiving free education and counselling through the orphan care programme.
In the long term, the Gipa programme aims to deepen the understanding of the nature of the HIV epidemic and help strengthen the national capacity to respond effectively, through the involvement of people affected by the epidemic. 

National capacity cannot provide adequate information on prevention, access to drugs and home-based care for patients. Mitigating the spread and impact of HIV and care for patients is heavily dependent on community action driven by volunteerism.

Many counsellors, activists and peer educators fight against HIV and Aids, are volunteers. Their commitment is not motivated by monetary gain and their actions are carried out freely and without coercion. Their personal experience, acquired knowledge and professional qualifications add impetus to the national HIV and Aids campaign. 

Wisdom Kanyamula, Central Support Officer for Malawi Network of Aids Service Organisation (Manaso), has provided technical support to 155 community-based organisations (CBO) in the nine Central Region districts and another 21 organisations have received financial management training.

Another volunteer, Deidre Madise, is involved in familiarising CBOs on country coordinating mechanisms for the Global Fund. The fundamental skills and knowledge imparted by these volunteers is immeasurable. This individual volunteer action culminates into enormous national collective gains.

The government, non-profit and civil society organisations and the private sector must encourage and acknowledge their role in developing national policies and response to HIV and Aids and other development issues. Volunteerism must be acknowledged for this major contribution to attract the right mix of skill, experience and personal commitment.

Most volunteers work within their own community and therefore are very influential and respected. A huge majority of home-based caregivers for HIV and Aids patients are unrecognised volunteers, most of whom are living in poverty. They can benefit from training and priority access to information and medical inputs for care giving.

The Gipa concept should be replicated nationally to ensure that this knowledge and expertise of people infected and affected by the epidemic contribute to decision-making at the local and national level and their insights are reflected in policies. -- The author is Communication Officer, UN systems in Malawi.

Note: United Nations Volunteers (UNV) support the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals through the promotion of volunteerism. Each year, UNV provides opportunity for more than 7,000 women and men — 75 percent coming developing countries – to support peace, relief and development initiatives in 140 countries. In Malawi, United Nations Volunteers (UNV) works with the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and Aids (UNAids), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), local and international NGOs, CBOs, networks of people living with HIV and Aids and national Aids programmes.