Networking to beat the effects of HIV
Jennifer Gatsi-Mallet has made it her life’s work to build community support organisations and networks for women and children living with HIV in Namibia. HIV is one of the leading causes of poverty in the country; Unaids estimates that 10% of the country’s population is affected by the virus. While HIV pushes families into poverty, poverty can also make them more vulnerable to HIV, for example when people turn to sex work, or migrate to other countries to find work in order to provide for their families.
To succeed in overcoming poverty and suffering, the cycle of cause and effect that links HIV and poverty together must be broken. Gatsi-Mallet has lived openly with HIV for the last 18 years, and her work since 2003 is aiming to do that, with her focus on women and children living with HIV.
She created the first HIV support group in Namibia, called Namibia Women’s Health Network, which includes herself and 13 women and girls living with HIV. She revived the Khomas Women in Development community-based organisation when it had collapsed in 1997, and it is still running successfully today. Gatsi-Mallet also founded Tuyakula Group, a group of people living with HIV, as well as the Child Hope Initiative through an invitation by the community to start a programme for orphans and vulnerable children in the Hakahana community of Katutura.
The network works in each of Namibia’s 13 regions to provide information, education, skills, and capacity building to improve the health of Namibian women living with HIV and to empower them to become leaders at local and national levels. The program provides participants with accurate information on sexual reproductive health, prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, and cancer of the cervix, among others. The network also shares information on where to access services in connection with gender-based violence, as well as teaching English literacy, a skill necessary for communicating with health workers.
Not only is she empowering women with HIV, she has also managed to highlight the issue of women and HIV at grassroots, civil society and parliamentary levels. Her next step is to link the network’s committee members to Namibia’s parliamentarians for monthly engagement and discussions on health issues.
She hopes to help women overcome the unique obstacles and challenges they face in accessing and fulfilling their sexual and reproductive health rights, as well as accessing HIV prevention, care and support services. By creating enabling environments within the community, empowering men and women within the community as standard-bearers for gender equity, and forging better links between HIV and women’s rights movements, they can begin to tackle these problems.
Her innovative strategies include community workshops; training young people and women living with HIV as sexual and reproductive health and rights advocates, particularly around the issues of communication and decision-making; and local- and national-level advocacy on access to contraceptives. Additionally, the network is pioneering litigation to address the coerced and/or forced sterilisation of women living with HIV and forging alliances to expand their advocacy around unwanted pregnancies, “baby dumping” and safe abortion with partners such as the Namibia Planned Parenthood Association.