In her inspiring life, trade unionist Siphiwe Hlophe has been on the frontlines of Swaziland’s labour, women’s rights and HIV movements. This week CUPE members and staff had the opportunity to meet her and learn firsthand about the grassroots struggle against HIV in Swaziland.
The event was organized by CUPE BC Division, and chaired by Mark Hancock, secretary-treasurer of CUPE BC.
Hlophe talked about her roots as a public employee in the Swaziland Ministry of Agriculture. Never content to accept the way things were, Hlophe became involved with the labour movement and advocating for workers rights. She went on to leadership positions within the public sector union before becoming the first elected female executive of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions.
“I deserved to be the president, but that’s not how the men think. The president, the vice- president, the secretary general – these are all the men’s positions,” said Hlophe about her experience. “I had to campaign very hard to become the national treasurer.”
Her presence brought women’s issues to the forefront, and she successfully campaigned for improvements to private sector maternity policies.
Hlophe’s life took a drastic change in 1999 when she went back to school on scholarship. While undergoing a required screening test, she was diagnosed with HIV. When she told her husband, he left her to raise her four children alone. Her scholarship was revoked, and she was told to go back to her community for care. She experienced the stigma still associated with HIV in a very personal way.
“The experience made me sad, but I knew there must be other women who felt the same,” Hlophe said. “I knew I had to form an organization.”
And Hlophe did just that. With four other women, Hlophe founded Swaziland Positive Living (SWAPOL), an organization dedicated to taking care of women impacted by HIV/AIDS. In just a couple of months the organization grew from 5 women to over 500.
The organization was able to grow because of funding from the Stephen Lewis Foundation, an organization that CUPE proudly supports. The grants helped SWAPOL set up an office and a mobile clinic, develop training programs to train caregivers, and deliver nutrition programs in community. Their community based care model is a worldwide example of successful treatment models.
Despite the great work of organizations like SWAPOL, Swaziland’s HIV rates continue to increase and currently sit at 26 per cent of the population. SWAPOL’s work is more important than ever, but stigma still exists and funding is tight.
With budget shortfalls G20 governments are withdrawing funding from the Global Fund to Fight HIV, Tuberculosis and Malaria - the main group that funds distribution of HIV medication. Budget shortfalls mean that thousands of people will be taken off the vital medication.
Though Canada is still giving $180 million a year, there is more we can do as a nation. The NDP have introduced a bill called Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime, which would force pharmaceutical companies to produce cheaper generic HIV drugs for the global south.
Mark Hancock was on hand to speak about CUPE’s commitment to the work of the Stephen Lewis Foundation and SWAPOL. He urged CUPE locals to stand in solidarity with SWAPOL and to donate to the Stephen Lewis Foundation.