Stella overcomes HIV/AIDS discrimination

To mark Zero Discrimination Day on 1 March, Mac Pherson Mdalla, Christian Aid Programme Coordinator in Malawi, shares the story of Stella, who faces harsh discrimination for her HIV status, but is helping others in her community to understand HIV and AIDS.

HIV disproportionately affects women in comparison to men in Malawi. Research by the Ministry of Health in 2015–16 found that prevalence of HIV among adult women to be 12.8% compared to 8.2 among Malawian adult men.

Stella is a mother of three. She lives in Malawi, a country, where the prevalence of HIV is among the highest in the world. She was diagnosed HIV positive in 2009. Interestingly, more so than men, women in Malawi bear the brunt of HIV. Before Stella knew her status, she was often ill and lost a lot of weight. She then took a bold step and went for an HIV test, which was positive.

With the counselling she received from the hospital, Stella realised that it was important for her to disclose her status to her family and relatives, but this came with big challenges. Stella faced stigma and discrimination from her relatives and neighbours, including her own village chief, the moment she declared her status.

Stella Nkhata of Chisazima village in the area of Tradition Authority Kaomba in Kasungu District, Malawi. She uses her personal experience to help fight discrimination faced by others like her.

What shocked Stella most was the lack of moral support from her husband. Once he found out about her status, he decided to end the marriage. Her husband feared he would contract HIV from her, so he left her for another woman.

With so many people dying from AIDS-related illnesses in Malawi, 27,000 in 2015, it isn’t surprising that Stella faced a lot of discrimination from loved ones. They feared that associating themselves with her, either through sharing a meal or using the same bathroom and toilet would put them at risk of HIV.

While Stella thought she could get solace and support from the village chief, this was not the case. He ridiculed her, and wanted to keep a distance to her.

But since the arrival of the Malawi Network of Religious Leaders Living with HIV/AIDS (MANERELA+) to work in Kasungu district and in Stella’s area under the project Investing for impact against tuberculosis and HIV, has now changed Stella’s life for the better.

Stella at a mentoring session helping people in her community have a better understanding of HIV/AIDS

Trained by the project, Stella has become one of the mentor mothers delivering information to reduce stigma.

Stella’s relations, the village chief and other traditional leaders in the district where she has been conducting outreach programs on Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) and HIV Testing and Counselling (HTC), all acknowledge she has given them a greater understanding about HIV.

‘My relatives, who I stay with here, have come to accept me as one of them and we now even share a plate of food. They have understood and learnt that having HIV is not the end of life and that one can not get HIV from associating with an HIV positive person.
‘I even get calls from Traditional Authorities to visit them and conduct HIV and PMTCT talks so that they can learn one or two things from my experience and from what I learnt from MANERELA+ project as a mentor mother.’

She joyfully adds:

‘I have seen a lot of people following my story with keen interest, and when I am conducting a talk, I am able to see a lot of people in disbelief that an HIV-positive can stand healthy and talk about her experiences as I do.’

Find out more about Christian Aid’s work on health and HIV.