Where is the support and funding for local, women-led and peer-led responses to COVID-19?

By Jacquelyne Alesi and Fiona Hale

We are in the middle of a perfect storm. The climate crisis, the response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, ‘a crisis-within-a crisis’ in the form of the worst locust outbreak in decades, patriarchy, structural racism and rising inequality are all coming together to cause serious problems for people everywhere. COVID-19 is causing untold human suffering and economic devastation. For huge numbers of people, including women living with HIV around the world, the most pressing issues include domestic violence, medication, sexual and reproductive health, money and how to put food on the table.

As the International Community of Women (ICW) reports, woman living with HIV are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. This takes many forms. Restrictions on mobility have meant women are forced to carry a permission letter when they go to collect their ARVs, and are required to show this to police or security personnel, forcing them to disclose their HIV status. There are reports of shocking treatment of women in childbirth for those women who are able to travel during lockdown to give birth in a health facility. And surge in domestic violence has been reported globally, as women are locked down with their abusers.

Women living with HIV often work in the informal sector, so measures to control the coronavirus can mean a complete loss of livelihood. In places that are providing social protection and relief packages during this emergency, many – including sex workers – are left out. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report estimates that at a minimum, another 83 million people, and possibly as many as 132 million, may go hungry in 2020 as a result of the economic recession triggered by COVID-19. Around the world, women living with HIV say they fear hunger more than COVID-19.

Networks of women living with HIV everywhere have mobilised to support their sisters. Women are delivering food and provisions to their peers, making sure those under lockdown have ARVs, advocating for governments to secure access to treatment before stockouts, advocating for pregnant women to be exempt from travel restrictions so they can go for maternity care. Sex worker-led organisations have mobilised worldwide to ensure their members have food, shelter, medications, and can pay their rent and bills.

One example of this mobilisation comes from Uganda. Jacquelyne Alesi is the former Director of UNYPA (Ugandan Network of Young People living with HIV), and a member of the Making Waves Network. She recently set up the Jacquelyne Ssozi Foundation. The Foundation obtained a small grant of US$500 from Wells Mountain Initiative, an organisation that aims to create social change by building a network of grassroots leaders who are catalysing community transformation.

Here, Jacquelyne writes about how this grant was used.

Providing food support to mothers living with HIV in Uganda  
‘I am an alumni of the Wells Mountain Initiative, and the grant was for a work carried out as part of the Mirembe Project to help reach some people living with HIV especially women living with HIV. We knew that because of the COVID-19 response, people were not adhering to their ARVs because they did not have enough to eat, and ARVs cannot be taken on an empty stomach. The government provided some initial food relief several months ago, but since then the only support is from good will Samaritans.  

With this initial grant, we reached 20 women living with HIV with food supplies, including flour, maize, oil, soap, rice, beans and milk.   The stories the women shared have really left us looking for support so that we can support more mothers. There is a mother who had spent 2 days only taking tea with her 3 children yet she was on ARVs but no food. All the kind of jobs she used to do – like washing for people – had stopped and she was begging from one door to another at least to have her kids have some food for a day. This mother was referred to us by Kansaganti Health Center IV and she broke down in tears when we reached her home with the food support. She said “You were sent by God to save my kids”, we looked at the kids and indeed they were hungry. We keep praying for them for God to provide for them.  Another one was coming from Ndejje which is Luweero district. She was referred to us by Family Hope Centre Kampala. She had spent 3 days only taking porridge with her 1 year old son. Before that she was moving from one house to another to get something for her son. When she was called for the food aid she couldn’t even believe that she was going to have sugar that she had spent 4 months not taking because she didn’t have money. She received this aid and says “At least this month I am happy my son will have some tasty food.”  

Uganda’s COVID-19 infections seem to bnot going down. On 21st July 2020 the President did some partial unlocking of some businesses but this didn’t include people who work casual jobs, involving moving from one house to another to work. COVID-19 took away many things from people especially the ones living with HIV. Lack of privacy during lockdown has meant forced disclosure of HIV status for many people, which has led to violence within the family and couples breaking up.  

We at The Jacquelyne Ssozi Foundation are still looking for funds and we have embarked on raising funds to help women have sustainable availability of food in their homes, we plan to give start-up capital to women as some have mentioned what they wanted to do if support is available. Some of the suggested businesses include; selling cooking fuel, starting up small roadside selling of tomatoes, greens and other basics that neighbours can buy instead of going to the market, making snacks like Chapati, Madazi, and subbies, back yard farming for those who have a small space to at least plant simple foods.   The Jacquelyne Ssozi Foundation is registered with the Uganda Registration Services Bureau with registration number 80020002550007. If you would like to donate to the work, we’re looking for US$80 per family to provide food support to women living with HIV to enable them to feed themselves and their children and adhere to their ARVs. With US$150, women can start up a small business to help sustain themselves beyond COVID-19. To donate, please contact Jacquelyne Alesi +256 776597384.’

So all over the world, inspiring women like Jacquelyne are providing support to other women living with HIV. And it is really not clear what would happen to all the women involved without this very practical peer support and mobilisation at this time.

This is one more demonstration – if one were needed – of the importance and the power of local responses. It highlights the fact that women know what they need, and how to deliver it, even in the face of restrictions and curfews. However, yet again, women worldwide are doing this vital work with very little in the way of support and funding. The potential impacts on their own health, both physical and emotional, are clear, and it is yet another example of the disproportionate burden of unpaid work on women.

In the face of the current COVID-19 pandemic, we urge governments to find ways to fulfil their SDG commitments to gender equality, elimination of violence against women and girls, zero hunger, ending the HIV epidemic. We are looking to them to make sure the COVID-19 response leads to new and fairer ways of working, of ensuring gender equality, of supporting and resourcing women to be at the centre of local responses that address their priorities.

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