The health centre in Mapholaneng, a remote northern district of Lesotho, is crowded. In a small room, more than 40 women, some clutching small children, are waiting for their meeting to begin.
Those gathered are Red Cross care facilitators – volunteers working within their own communities to help support people affected by HIV. The meeting is bringing people together from all over this large and mountainous district and some have travelled for more than three hours.
Mapotso Seote, 47, has come from Polomiti village where she has been a care facilitator for nearly four years. She says: “It was only after I was trained by the Red Cross that I realised how much HIV was in my community.”
Fear and stigma
Mapotso helps 21 people and as they are all her neighbours she knows them personally. Her day-to-day work ranges from offering psychological support, such as counselling, through to practical help, such as giving information on testing, accompanying people to clinics and distributing food parcels to those in need.
“I see 18 women and three men. All are HIV positive,” she says. “One of the women has a young baby and we are waiting to see if it’s HIV positive. I know there are more people than this in my community who are HIV positive and who might need our help, but they don’t want to disclose their status.”
For Mapotso, trying to help people combat the fear they feel around testing remains a challenge.
She says: “I think there are many more people in my village who need to be tested and one who I think even needs treatment, but they are afraid. Often one partner will get tested and, even if they are positive, the other still refuses. People are afraid for different reasons. Some think HIV is about prostitution or multiple sexual partners. Others are afraid to die.”
Despite the very visible impact HIV is having on communities in Lesotho, and massive government communications campaigns such as ‘Know Your Status’, it is clear that there is still a lot of fear.
However, having a trusted member of the local community trained by the Red Cross is having a positive impact and has enabled many to take the difficult step of coming forward for testing.
Mapotso says: “People need to keep learning. There isn’t as much stigma as there used to be but it cannot just stop. We must keep educating people.”