Lilongwe ‑ Strong will, confidence and determination are some of the traits that helped 41-year-old Mercy Kalikongwe to conquer the stigma and discrimination prevalent in her community and climb the social ladder.
Mercy, who hails from Chiseka Village, in Mitundu, on the fringe of Malawi’s administrative capital city, Lilongwe, is deaf and living with HIV/AIDS.
Like most parts of the world inclusive participation of people with disabilities in social, economic and political spheres of life, is a challenge governments and non-governmental organisations are fighting to overcome.
Through the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which came into force in 2008, the United Nations commits States to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms of persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.
Mary says that she contracted the virus that causes AIDS during her first marriage to a husband who succumbed to the virus and died without disclosing to her that he was carrying the microbe.
“Despite that I was the one caring for him throughout his entire period of intermittent unassailable sickness, he never disclosed to me his condition or sero-status though he knew it,” said Mercy using sign language through an interpreter.
She says the husband died leaving behind four children whom she had to single handedly fend for.
Mercy discloses that before her husband’s death, she did not know about HIV until she too got uncompromisingly ill that her relatives thought she had been bewitched before taking her to hospital after futile visits to different witchdoctors in attempts to find a cure for her persistent sicknesses.
At the hospital, she was diagnosed HIV positive and immediately put on anti-retroviral therapy.
Unfortunately, her health condition dealt her a double blow, she says. Since, as a deaf person, she had already been subjected to stigma and discrimination from relatives and members of the community, the revelation that she had tested HIV positive made it worse.
“As a deaf person I had already been experiencing the pangs of being excluded from taking part in most of the village activities,” she recalls saying her sero-status plainly served to rub salt on an already injured ego.
Attempts to secure a loan through a US$165 revolving fund that her community had accessed hit a blank wall, as most community members ‑ who shared about US$30 each ‑ snubbed her because of her disability and HIV status.
Determined not to be trodden upon, Mercy begun going to maize mills around the trading centre to assist people mill maize into flour. From such services, she begun earning some money, which, together with the maize husks that she collected, fed her children including a one-year-old born out of her second marriage.
The little baby was born HIV negative after accessing prevention of mother-to-child treatment (PMTCT) at a community hospital.
Mercy disclosed that her new husband, who grows maize, soya beans and sweet potatoes on a small scale, which the family sells to buy their basic needs, is also HIV positive and lost his first wife to the virus.
A bouncy Mercy attributes her positive life despite contracting HIV, to her family’s participation in the Mitundu AIDS Support Organisation where they have learnt care, support and treatment of HIV infected people.
Mercy says she has forgiven the people who used to sideline her from village activities because of her physical disability and sero-status because they were doing that out of ignorance.
“Since we have improved in life, we are now all living together as one family, doing together activities that are beneficial to the entire community,” she says about her relatives and the community members who used to discriminate her from village activities because of her condition.
Mitundu AIDS Support Organisation now has more than three families who are HIV positive but at the same time living with disabilities.
A NAC District AIDS Co-ordinator for Lilongwe, Mwakasungura, says mainstreaming the rights of people with disabilities in the country’s development agenda is a way to achieve equality for people with disabilities.
“To enable people with disabilities to contribute to creating opportunities, share in the benefits of development, and participate in decision-making, a twin-track approach may be required,” he says explaining that a twin-track approach ensures that disability issues are actively considered in mainstream development work, and more focused or targeted activities for people with disabilities are implemented where necessary.