Women’s Health and Empowerment Programme (WHEP)
At the heart of our work lies the commitment to improve the physical and mental wellbeing of farmwomen. Poor health is pervasive among farm workers and is compounded by the nexus of gender based violence (GBV), alcohol abuse and HIV/AIDS.
WHEP aims to ensure that farmwomen’s health needs and rights are accessible and respected and that they are empowered to take individual and collective action around abuses of those rights in the home and the workplace.
WHEP also targets young farmwomen by educating them and raising their awareness around social and health issues, particularly their rights as young women.
WHEP works through a system of volunteers or Resource Agents (RAs) who make up farm-based Health Teams. They are trained in various health issues, including sexual and reproductive health, GBV, alcohol abuse and HIV/AIDS. Health Teams take a leading role in health education and mobilisation at the farm level and beyond. Each Health Team is linked and accountable to its Sikhula Sonke farm committee, facilitating it to take up health issues within a broader framework of accessing rights.
WHEP has had a marked impact on the lives of Health Team members. After participating in various information and training workshops, many have spoken of their personal growth and development which has helped them overcome major challenges in their lives. Moreover, the sense of solidarity and sisterhood that has developed among RAs has been a key success of programme. One the main indicators of success in this regard is the number of women who have declared their HIV-positive status to the group.
TESTIMONY OF AN HIV-POSITIVE RESOURCE AGENT
My name is Marie Booysen*. I’m a 24-year old woman and was born on the 18th April 1981. I live on a farm called Soetendal in Wellington (Western Cape), South Africa. I’m a single mother with two children. The eldest child is called Doris* and she’s 8 years old. My baby is called Dan* and he’s 4 years old.
I got the virus through unprotected sex. I had a relationship for four years with a guy called Pieter Adams*. We only started having sex in our second year but we always used condoms. One day we went to the mountains and we had a few beers. Even though we were not very drunk we did have sex that day without a condom. Just after that Pieter told me that he was sorry, but he knew he had given me the virus. He made a promise that he will work for me one day even when I got sick. Pieter also warned me that I will never get another boyfriend again because of my HIV status.
I went for an HIV test in September 2004 because the colour of my face started changing and I lost a lot of weight and lost my appetite. I went to the mobile clinic at the Soetendal Primary School. I received the pre- and post counselling by Sister Philander. When she told me my test showed positive for the HIV virus, I felt very shocked, angry, sad and disappointed. The saddest thought was that I will die and my two children will be alone
I’m HIV positive for a year and a half now and my family and my whole neighbourhood is aware of my situation. The relationship between my mom and me is not good at all. We differ with many things and she’s always telling me that it’s my own fault for being HIV-positive. My mom is always telling me that I must take my stuff and leave her home.
Being HIV positive had a very big impact on my life. Physically, I’m always tired and I’m not working any more. I quit my job because I got swellings and always felt dizzy. I only receive a Child Support Grant and can’t look after my children the way I want to. Despite his promises, I don’t get any maintenance from my children’s father. I don’t feel like taking Pieter to court for maintenance because it will be too tiring and humiliating for me.
In my family life it’s also very bad. I don’t know of anyone else in my family that has the virus. My mother does not want to bath in the same bath as me, so I had to buy a small plastic basin for me to wash in. One day I drank coffee with another lady, but when she heard I had the virus, she threw away the cup I drank from.
I’m not on ARVs yet because the last time the doctor checked, my CD4 count was still all right. I do have to take vitamins which I have to get from the Paarl Provincial Hospital. Right now I don’t know what my CD4 count is because I have not been to the hospital as I have to use a taxi to get there and I have not had the taxi fare recently to go there.
A difficulty for me is that I’m without employment and that I have to deal with the hurt and pain that my partner has left me for another woman. But I am very proud to be a Health Resource Agent for Women on Farms Project. The love and support from other group members means so much to me. After my partner rejected me, I felt I have no one to talk to or someone that makes me feel special. But I have found a new family. My fellow Resource Agents have been my joy, my strength and my family, a home where I feel safe just to be me.
Working with other Resource Agents has created a space where women could start to challenge their own perceptions and realise that they have the ability and strength to change their situations. We have also had the privilege within the Programme to see women move from being Resource Agents to becoming staff of WFP.
SHARON MESSINA: FROM RESOURCE AGENT TO PROGRAMME OFFICER
My interest in HIV/AIDS started when I was a Grade R-teacher in a farming community. Seeing so many children getting sick and suffering from different diseases, I really wanted to do something to change their situation.
I enrolled in an HIV/AIDS course in Early Childhood Development which was presented by Cotlands (a sanctuary for children living with HIV/AIDS). My eyes were opened to a different kind of world and I realised that this was my interest and in doing my bit; I can help bring about change. After a few courses, I was enabled to deliver speeches in schools and in the community about HIV/AIDS. That started to bring a change in the community because more parents would come forward and talk about their children’s illnesses.
Due to a number of problems that were experienced, the school closed down. After a while of being at home, I became part of what was called the “Women’s group” in Klapmuts. They formed part of Women on Farms Project and dealt with issues women face. Because my interest was in HIV/AIDS, I became part of the Women’s Health Programme. I always found joy in that group and always looked forward to the next gathering or public awareness programme. I became a Resource Agent for the programme in 2001. As an RA, my responsibility was to attend the training workshops and bring the information back to my community.
In May 2005, I was employed as the Women’s Health Programme Officer. When I was an RA, I was employed by an organisation called @Heart (Stellenbosch Aids Action) as a Community Counsellor. I used my resources in both organisations to link up with my community work. I appreciated that WFP validated my work as an RA by employing me. Being empowered in different health issues, I can now help bring change in more people’s lives and in more areas than just the community where I live.