Activists shout from the sidelines

HARARE – The new board of Zimbabwe's National AIDS Council (NAC) has a glaring omission: not one member is living openly with the HI-virus. AIDS activists have slammed the move, describing it as "discriminatory" and a step backwards in the fight against the epidemic.

The NAC was established in 1999 to coordinate and facilitate Zimbabwe’s multi-sectoral response to HIV/AIDS, and the board makes some of the country’s most important decisions affecting the welfare of those living with HIV.

When the board’s term expired recently, Zimbabwe’s health minister, David Parirenyatwa, re-appointed seven previous board members and named four new ones, including the director of the Zimbabwe Business Council on AIDS; a gospel singer, and a member of the Traditional Medical Practitioners Council.

Martha Tolana of the Zimbabwe AIDS Network, an umbrella body for over 400 non-governmental organisations, who is openly living with HIV, raised concerns about the exclusion from the board of HIV-positive people, or anyone from a member organisation of the AIDS Network.

"The advantage of placing people like us, who are living with HIV, in strategic places such as the NAC board is that we are better able to articulate the issues that affect other HIV-positive Zimbabweans, because we experience them too," she told IRIN/PlusNews.

''We are only remembered when there is a workshop to be held, and the organisers want to use our testimonies to record and take to donors for funding.''

Joao Zangarati of the Grassroots Movement of People Living with HIV/AIDS warned that no response could succeed without the meaningful involvement of people who were directly affected.

"We are only remembered when there is a workshop to be held, and the organisers want to use our testimonies and life stories to record and take to donors for funding," he commented.

"After that we are forgotten, and remembered again when it suits these organisations. It is very unfortunate really. There can’t be any meaningful interventions without the guidance of us people living with HIV and the sooner policy-makers realise this, the better for all of us," Zangarati said.

NAC director Dr Tapuwa Magure said there had been no deliberate attempt to sideline people living with HIV, and alleged that the "fragmented" AIDS network organisations had failed to "speak with one voice" and agree on the names of people to be put forward to sit on the board.

"The ministry of health and child welfare wrote to AIDS network organisations and requested names of people living with HIV to be included on the board, but there is a lot of infighting and we haven’t received any names," he told IRIN/PlusNews.

Nevertheless, Otto Saki, the programmes coordinator of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), pointed out that "it is not too late" for the minister of health and child welfare to include HIV-positive representatives on the board.