Zimbabwean men have become increasingly involved in caring for AIDS patients, challenging the stereotype that caring for the terminally ill is women's work.
For 48-year-old Luckson Murungweni, until recently it would have been inconceivable that he would one day be actively involved in caring for the chronically ill, let alone those dying from AIDS. Now his attitude is different and he has become the focal point of a home-based care project in rural Goromonzi, some 35 kilometres east of the capital, Harare.
"For years we watched with bleeding hearts as our daughters and sons came home from the towns and cities to die after having contracted HIV. Those who lived in the towns were also passing on the virus to the young in the area, and the burden of caring for the ill was left to women," Murungweni told IRIN.
"As men, we never viewed ourselves as crucial in providing care to those being claimed by the AIDS pandemic, choosing instead to spend most of our time at Juru Growth Point [a central business centre], drinking beer. But things changed last year when councillors in various districts of Goromonzi approached us and urged us to become involved," he explained.
With the support of the Hospice Association of Zimbabwe (HOSPAZ), district councillors appealed to men in the community to form a group that would complement the efforts of the women providing home-based care.
HOSPAZ area coordinator Kuziva Makamanzi said the NGO decided to involve men in order to address the HIV/AIDS pandemic in a holistic way. Although they were initially reluctant to participate for fear of stigmatisation, the relatively novel idea has spread to other parts of the country and the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society now has its own home-based project in which 105 out of 900 facilitators countrywide are men.
"To me it is encouraging to see men becoming less idle and less chauvinistic. Their decision to participate in community-based caregiving is a great shift in the way they have been perceiving the AIDS issue - they are coming to realise that AIDS is just one of the diseases that needs to be fought by society as a whole," said Murungweni.
Zimbabwe has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world, and the third worst level of infection in southern Africa. Health ministry statistics show that about 24.6 percent of the population is HIV positive and an estimated 3,000 people contract the virus every week, of whom the most vulnerable are women.
In a speech delivered at a recent seminar, the resident minister for Mashonaland East, David Karimanzira, said women were also more affected by HIV/AIDS, due to the "caregiver role that a woman or girl assumes the moment a member of the family is sick and needs care".
"The issue of male involvement in care still remains an issue to contend with ... it is my hope that this programme will be replicated in other areas, where it will assist in equipping men and women to be actively involved in looking after and caring for the sick at home and in communities," added Karimanzira.
As part of the HOSPAZ home-based care initiative, volunteers like Murungweni are given basic training in caregiving, counselling the sick and their families, nutrition for the ill and protection against contracting HIV themselves.
The volunteers assist in bathing, feeding and doing chores for patients, such as fetching firewood and food. They also provide financial assistance for buying drugs, or when patients need to be taken to clinics or hospital to have opportunistic infections treated.
Murungweni's support group comprises mainly men, who work closely with the women in the local communities. "It would be very difficult for men to provide care exclusively on their own, for there are obvious barriers. For instance, when we visit a female patient, we cannot bathe her, change her clothes or take her to the toilet - this makes it necessary to consult female volunteers," said Murungweni.
There is no overall leader in the Goromonzi project, but chiefs, councillors and a HOSPAZ area coordinator regularly check on progress being made.
Vaal Maasdorp, acting director of Island Hospice, an NGO that cares for the terminally ill and bereaved, told IRIN that the men are as good as the women caregivers. "It is not entirely true to say that women have been solely looking after the sick in our society. Husbands often take care of their wives or children, and when they see other men getting involved, that inspires them to do even better."
She noted that in some cases women regarded their male counterparts with suspicion and blocked their efforts to provide care, since traditional culture had taught them to view tending to the sick as their preserve.
The Zimbabwean chapter of Southern Africa HIV/AIDS Information Dissemination Services (SAfAIDS) sees a host of advantages in men participating in home-based care. In a recent publication the organisation said because men were the traditional leaders and decision-makers, they could have greater influence on attitudes towards HIV/AIDS.
"If men get involved in home-based care, they may be in a better position to act as role models for younger men, show other men how to change their behaviour, protect themselves and their families against HIV and the consequences of AIDS", SAfAIDS noted.
The organisation said men and women working together in a programme on HIV/AIDS were better able to fight stigma and fear of discrimination in communities, particularly if they promoted the disclosure of HIV status.