National Emergency Response Council on HIV/AIDS

PLHIV Support Groups respond impressively to NERCHA’s call for Expression of Interest for Livelihood Support

Today, His Majesty King Mswati III will officiate at the State Opening of the Second Session of the 11th Parliament of the Kingdom of Eswatini, where he will deliver his Speech from the Throne. His Majesty’s speech will guide government in developing her annual operations, and in-turn, those of the National Emergency Response Council on HIV and AIDS (NERCHA) which operates under the leadership of the Prime Minister.

Last year, in opening the First Session of the 11th Parliament, His Majesty re-emphasized that the key responsibility for the national HIV and AIDS response remains that of pursuing the Vision 2022 target of “Ending AIDS” and stressed that by 2022, no Liswati should get HIV; die from AIDS related illnesses; and no HIV stigma or discrimination should exist within our communities.

Given the national HV and AIDS response also gets its policy direction and mandate from the King’s speech, NERCHA is then tasked to align the provided directive with the already established programmes of the National Multisectoral HIV and AIDS Strategic Framework (NSF) 2018-2023, and set time bound targets as per the King’s vision. In keeping with this, in 2019, the Prime Minister, Honourable Ambrose Mandvulo Dlamini, officially launched a Livelihoods support programme for Support Groups of people living with HIV (PLHIV) aimed at improving and providing economic empowerment to PLHIV at grassroots levels. This it is hoped that the initiative will through the established income generation activities, contribute to alleviating or eradicating poverty and improve the livelihoods of PLHIV in each of the country’s regions.

Subsequently, at the beginning of this year, NERCHA made a “Call for Expression of Interest” from established Support Groups of PLHIV engaged in a programme that will improve the livelihoods of PLHIV and those of the communities in which they exist, to apply for access to small grants. The SGs were expected to table viable livelihood projects with a potential to contribute to the country’s vision of ending AIDS, as expressed in the NSF 2018-2023. The provision of seed money not exceeding E30,000.00 for each support group, is aimed at kickstarting or expanding the existing income generating projects and sustaining and further developing many EmaSwati infected and affected by HIV and AIDS at family and community level.

Prevailing situation of PLHIV and the HIV response in Eswatini

There are an estimated 210, 000 people living with HIV and AIDS in the country -    Among those aged 15 and older, who know their HIV status, 87.4% are on antiretroviral therapy (ART). The NSF 2018 – 2023, which is the roadmap for responding to HIV and AIDS prioritizes economic empowerment, specifically focusing on addressing vulnerability to HIV infection and mitigating the impact of HIV and AIDS among vulnerable populations. Structural factors such as economic dependence and unequal economic opportunities, gender inequality, and poverty render vulnerable groups susceptible to high risk sex. Lack of assets and secure access to livelihoods, coupled with a lack of social protection against abuse and exploitation exacerbates the susceptibility. These pressures contribute to high risk behaviour such as multiple and concurrent partnerships, intergenerational sex and vices, like sex work and transactional sex.

At least 67% of the adults in the country live in the rural areas and farming is their major vocation – with 66% of the population involved in farming though only 3% rely on farming as their main source of income. It was also established that only one in every five adults in the country earn their source of income in the formal sector (FinScope Swaziland, 2014).

For those aged 15-24 years, 51.6% are unemployed, with more women (56.7%) being unemployed than men (46.6%). There are 33.3% males and 32.3% females that are discouraged and have stopped looking for employment, becoming susceptible to sexual abuse and exploitation (Labour Force Survey, 2016). Some adolescents and young people that have dropped out of school, especially females, have limited skills and find it difficult to engage in economic activities.

NERCHA, through the NSF 2018-2023 not only focuses on facilitating the provision of economic empowerment programmes to young people in order to reduce their vulnerability to high risk behaviour but also seeks to consolidate empowerment initiatives across sectors to facilitate accountability and contribution to the HIV response. This is done within the wider social protection framework, including gender empowerment - it is an open secret that HIV disproportionately affects women.

Currently, the country seeks to scale up treatment, care and support services to achieve 95-95-95 percentages in the treatment cascade by 2023. This is an approach aimed at ensuring that 95% of all PLHIV get to know their status; 95% of all people diagnosed HIV infection receive sustained antiretroviral therapy (ART); and 95% of all people receiving sustained ART achieve a viral suppression. This is aimed at ensuring that PLHIV live healthy lives and contribute to the country’s economy.

The need to ensure that PLHIV are involved in the HIV response and the country’s economic activities cannot be over-emphasized and is critical to achieve the set national targets. The Kingdom of Eswatini through NERCHA and partners understands that Support Groups (SGs) have been a key intervention for PLHIV and have over the years provided a space for PLHIV to access knowledge, care, emotional, social, economic empowerment and practical help provided by people who have faced the same challenges and issues as those in need of such.

Impressive response by Support Groups

The application process (which included downloading forms from the NERCHA social platforms or collecting them from the Regional HIV and AIDS Coordinating Offices based at the Regional Administrators Offices, filling it and submitting electronically or by hand) closed on Friday 24 January 2020. The response was quite impressive – to say the least.

In total there were 152 support groups that submitted applications through the provided forums (21 were mailed electronically and 131 hand delivered at the various regional). There were 27 applications received in the Hhohho, 42 in the Lubombo, 43 in Manzini and 40 in the Shiselweni.

Unsurprisingly, many of the submitted applications were from mixed membership support groups that are predominantly made up of women. Significantly, though just a drop in the ocean, Hhohho and Shiselweni each received a single application from an all-male support group - a commendable step in the right direction. Worth mentioning too, is the application received by the Lubombo region, from the support group constituting out-of-school young women, aged 15-25 years.

Currently, the various regional committees are sifting through the applications to ascertain eligibility as well as short list potential projects that could be granted the seed money. The next step will be to announce names of those support groups that have been shortlisted and further guiding them to submit tailored applications – using a different application form to be availed only to those shortlisted.

Coming at a time when there have been major challenges faced by PLHIV in the country, as well as the rather demanding timeframe that support groups had to work with, the response to the “Call for Expression of Interest” has been quite remarkable. One would be tempted to say that the support groups had received His Majesty King Mswati III’s sermon on the need to forget the problems of the past years and focus on what lies ahead, telepathically.

“Let’s keep moving and leave all our problems behind as we walk with God towards 2022” said His Majesty during the annual thanksgiving prayer held at Mandvulo Grand Hall at Lozitha Palace.

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. Let us let go of the past as it tends to drag us down and move forward. Best of luck to the deserving support groups. To those that will not make it through, please use the experience as a reference point for better luck next time.