Taking charge - how people living with HIV/Aids in Benin are looking to the future
30 November, 2011: Mariatou* is larger than life and brimming with energy. In the courtyard of the compound belonging to the association where she is president, she bustles about organising the other members into action. Mariatou lives in Couffo, a region in the south west of Benin with the country’s highest rate of people living with HIV/Aids – 3.3% compared to the national prevalence of 1.7%.
Diagnosed as positive some seven years ago, Mariatou now heads up an association of nearly 100 members from the same community, all of whom also have HIV. They meet every Wednesday to share experiences and discuss how to extend the group’s income-generating activities – breeding rabbits and chickens, making garri (cassava flour) – as well as to explore microfinance opportunities, and the best ways to take care of children from households affected by HIV/Aids.
Mariatou’s dynamism makes her the perfect candidate to counsel newly diagnosed mothers and to break down the stigma associated with having HIV. She works closely with a Plan project in the region that helps prevent mother to child transmission and makes home visits to check on people’s health. Once the health workers from the Famille et Santé project know that a woman who is HIV positive falls pregnant, they distribute bed nets to help keep malaria at bay and advise her on how to keep healthy.
Maiatou’s husband, who was never tested, died several years ago but she had seen enough images of people living with HIV/Aids on TV to know what he had died from. She has an eight-year-old daughter who is negative and, although she remarried, took the decision not to have any more children.
“AIDS snatched my husband from me and threatened to separate me from my only daughter. I found a new husband who is also HIV positive. At first he was ashamed and did not come to the association. Through my work he now also testifies openly and he even speaks on the radio and television to sensitise people on HIV prevention. People don’t believe I’m really sick because physically I look very well.”
With the money earned from breeding farm animals, the association has been able to set up a solidarity fund that enables the poorest members to cope with medical expenses. They have also invested in a water pump to enable them to carry on farming during the dry season.
A short drive away in Djakotomey, the same entrepreneurial spirit shows at an association for people living with HIV/Aids, the majority of whom are widows. Here they make scented soap to sell at 200 CFA a bar (or around 25 pence).
Plan supports the association by providing food kits as well as school equipment for some of the children. Prosper*, 19, whose father died 3 years ago from HIV, explains how such support has allowed him and his siblings to continue with their studies. “The food kit has helped us to keep our health in order to go to school.”
Plan’s support for the associations
By offering nutritional, educational and vocational training, as well as psychosocial and legal support for people living with HIV/Aids and their families, Plan aims to empower these individuals so that they can plan for their future.
“We meet to share our difficulties, by doing so we have started to become autonomous, to do something for ourselves,” Mariatou shares.
*Names changed for protection reasons