Mending the social fabric

“When we went on stage to collect the award, I had butterflies in my stomach. I never imagined we would win,” says Bart Vander Plaetse, the chief executive of the Apparel Lesotho Alliance to Fight Aids (Alafa).

The alliance won the 2008 Drivers of Change award in the business category for the work it is doing to protect the largest and most productive employment sector in Lesotho from the ­ravages of HIV/Aids.“Since winning the award, there has been good energy fuelling the alliance,” says Vander Plaetse.
“It was a huge motivation. We have often been subjected to mistrust from our partners but after receiving the award we saw we had gained some confidence from them.”

Hosted by the Lesotho Textile Exporters’ Association, Alafa is a public-private community coalition that includes apparel manufacturers, retailers, workers, international clothing brands, international organisations and the Lesotho government. In 2009 it received a further accolade—it was commended in the Business Excellence Awards of the Global Business Coalition on HIV/Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Vander Plaetse says that during the roll-out of Alafa’s HIV/Aids campaign from 2006 to 2008 the organisation discovered that about 40% of employees in Lesotho’s textile industry were living with HIV/Aids. By 2010 it had managed to ensure that about 85% of these workers had access to treatment and care in the workplace and had registered more than 7?000 people for treatment.

Initially targeted at the large percentage of poorly skilled women employed in the apparel industry, in 2010 Alafa expanded its campaign by launching a special traditional game (morabaraba) contest to encourage more male workers to undergo HIV testing. Morabaraba is particularly popular among young men who herd cattle. HIV testing was made a prerequisite for team members participating in the contest.

The country’s 25 factories that operate workplace HIV clinics took part in the contest, which highlighted themes of respect and responsibility in the context of HIV treatment. A special feature of the campaign was lunchtime mobilisation at factories using musicians from local group Famo, who are popular with factory workers.

“The morabaraba day was a huge success and an excellent way for Alafa and its partner organisations to mark World Aids Day in 2010,” says Vander Plaetse. Alafa’s current programmes include voluntary testing and counselling for factory workers and health management and treatment measures, such as family planning and the prevention of mother-to-child transmissions.

The organisation works with factory management on HIV/Aids policy in the workplace. It distributes about 100?000 male condoms and between 12?000 and 15?000 female condoms a month to factories. It also works with peer educators to take their training back to their communities. But the sudden departure from Lesotho of its main funder, the United Kingdom’s department for international development, is a blow to the project.

“We are working on an alternative sustainability strategy with partners who are very willing to be part of the solution and have confidence that this will not be a stumbling block,” says Vander Plaetse. He expressed his gratitude for initiatives such as the Drivers of Change awards in recognising and appreciating the important role civil society organisations play.

“The award has shown me that nothing is impossible. It is still hanging on the wall in the office to motivate the team that we should never take for granted the role we play in Lesotho,” he says. “The social responsibility to tackle this problem needs to be shared,” says Jennifer Chen, the former president of the Lesotho Textile Employers’ Association. “We would like to thank the international donors for their contribution so this project can move forward.”

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