Maria Shongwe has overcome obstacles that many women and girls in South Africa face – including poverty and living with HIV – to become an inspirational community activist.
Maria was the first person in the small town of Amsterdam, near the Swaziland border, to openly reveal she was living with HIV. She also broke new ground by setting up a local branch of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) – a prominent national organization pushing for HIV healthcare services. Maria’s determination secured anti-retroviral treatment (ART) for 50 people when they couldn’t get it through the public health system, and recently got lottery funding to set up a home for orphans.
She now works for TAC in Mkhondo Municipality, where health services are among the worst in the country. In her own words, she gives an insight into her life and work:
‘He raped me’
I was born in Swaziland. We had to walk 70km to and from school every day. There was a guy – like an uncle. One day he gave me a lift on a bicycle. He went in the forest and he raped me. It was my first time, and I fell pregnant. But there was nothing I can do. Because maybe if you are a girl and you report something to your parents, they say: “That can’t be. It means that you are in love with that guy”.
‘The law doesn’t care about us as women’
‘When I grew up, I was married here in South Africa. After [my husband] passed away, his family took everything, even my furniture. I was in and out of court fighting. I take another step – I don’t want to hear about any women being abused. Because the law doesn’t care about us as women. I decided to leave everything and move to Amsterdam.
‘Don’t tell anybody’
I spoke to the lady [at the clinic] and disclosed my [HIV] status. She say: “No, don’t tell anybody you have tested positive.” I say I want to be helped because I don’t know what this virus will do to my body. She didn’t understand.
Becoming an activist
My daughter started to be sick. After six months, she tested positive for HIV. There was no medication in this area, so she passed away. She was 19. I started to do the [TAC] support groups. People started to talk about living with this virus but the medication was nowhere to be seen. I went to [the private] Iswepe Clinic, 56 km from here, and talked with the nurse.
She said: “People from Amsterdam can start the [ART] programme because people here don’t want to take the medication.” But it was difficult because we don’t have money to go there. Some of those taking the medication can’t walk. I brought them to [my] house until they were better. I cared for them. And I was going door-to-door. Without any stipend – I was getting nothing. If I found someone who was sick, I do the counselling to that person and take them to the clinic. Now I am a [paid] mentor, looking after TAC branches in the whole of Mkhondo Municipality.
Girls selling themselves
We are on the road to Swaziland and from Nelspruit to Durban – many people pass through. You can see the [young] girls in town going to sell themselves to the drivers. There are many taverns, poverty. The parents die and the children stay alone. If men give them R20 (US$2), they think it is a lot of money. They start sleeping with boys at an early age. Now I have started a group for these girls, educating them about how to keep themselves healthy.
The woman and girls in Mkhondo South Africa are one of 12 cases in Amnesty International’s Write for Rights campaign. Take action here.