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Siphiwe Hiophe: My inspiration for International Women’s Day

There was an article in the Metro today listing the poll results of the most influential and inspiring women of the last century. Names who made the grade included such inspirational figures as Emmeline Pankhurst, Millicent Fawcett, Justine Roberts and Moira Stuart. Topping the poll was the pop icon Leona Lewis, taking two-thirds of the votes, which tells us a lot about the perception of female role models today.

The article tied in with the 100th annual celebration of International Women’s Day.  Originally called International Working Women’s Day, the 8th of March every year is a major day of global celebration of women and our history.

This got me thinking about my own inspirational female figures. We all have icons of our own, of course. Whether it’s your mum, school teacher, midwife, campaigner or political figure, but what about the women who still have no voice?

Four years ago I was asked to arrange a youth delegation trip of young campaigners to South Africa. We visited student campaigners in Zambia, accompanied a ‘street intervention’ project around the Alexandra Township in Johannesburg, Soweto and district six – historic anti-apartheid hotbeds.

But the place that had the most impact on me was Swaziland, one of the world’s poorest countries. Despite its poverty, it receives very little international aid. The regions’ king has taken on the tradition passed down by his father and rules by decree over his people; most of whom live in the countryside and follow traditional ways of life. Around 70% of the people live below the poverty line of $1 per day.

On the day we visited it took us three plane journeys and several bumpy road trips to get there, but it was well worth it if only to meet Siphiwe Hlophe.

In 1999, as a married 40-year-old looking to continue her education in agricultural economics, Siphiwe Hiophe discovered she was HIV positive. As a result, her husband left her and she lost an academic scholarship.  But she reacted by co-founding an organization in 2001 called Swazis for Positive Living (Swapol), which aims to fight gender discrimination related to HIV and Aids and help other people who have tested positive.

Siphiwe was nominated for, and won, the Index on Censorship award by RT Hon David Blunkett in 2007. Having been an activist all of her life fighting for equality and justice she is an amazingly courageous woman who has made an incredible difference to the lives of women and people living with HIV.

Siphiwe led our visit. Everyone of us found those 4 days extremely powerful. We were taken in our embarrassingly indiscrete ‘hello the visitors are here’ style truck to a small village miles away from any other, where women who had been ousted from their communities for contracting HIV were sent to live. Ousted, of course, even though the king in Swaziland openly allows bigamy. He himself has 12 wives.

Siphiwe took us to one of the huts and advised that we would go in four at a time. Next it was our turn. As I walked in it felt really dark, cold and lifeless. One fragile lady was lying on the floor, not much older than me. The average life expectancy in Swaziland is 34. She was doing quite well.

Siphiwe advised that she was dying of HIV. She had no family and she only had the women around her in the village for comfort. Everyone just stood and stared. This was quite possibly Siphiwe’s way of introducing us to the stark reality of life there. As Siphiwe continued to tell us her story the fragile women lay lying on the floor, moaning out in pain and occasionally crying.

We all knelt down and held her hand. Siphiwe explained there was a health clinic about 8 miles away. Why isn’t she there? She couldn’t afford the cost to travel to the clinic.

The journey cost £4.

We all agreed to pay. The woman was clearly very grateful and Siphiwe arranged a car to take her to the clinic then and there. However to this day I’m not sure how much longer she survived.

This is a daily occurance for women in Africa and around the world.

Siphiwe continues to champion womens issues and survival tactics for every women living in these conditions. Find out about more of her work on the Positive Women website.

She’s my inspiration. Who’s yours?

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