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Patience Eshun, a widowed grandmother from Ghana who lost her daughter last year to HIV, knows how destructive HIV-related discrimination can be. “My daughter refused to go hospital to receive medicines. My daughter died because of the fear of stigmatization and discrimination,” she said.

Ms Eshun is one of thousands of widows living in Ghana who have experienced the effects of stigma and discrimination on people living with HIV. Ms Eshun and a group of women joined UNAIDS Deputy Executive Director Jan Beagle at a dialogue organized through the Mama Zimbi Foundation (MZF)—a nongovernmental organization that seeks to empower and support widows through its Widows Alliance Network (WANE) project—to discuss the challenges faced by widows and women living with HIV.

Ms Beagle visited Ghana to engage with the government and other stakeholders in light of Ghana’s Chairmanship of the UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board.

In Ghana, women are among the people most affected by HIV. Prevalence among women aged 15–49 is nearly double that among men of the same age (2.0% versus 1.3%). Widows are among the poorest women in Ghana—their poverty is linked to the deprivation of their rights and lack of access to justice through discriminatory customs, traditions and religious codes. Widows in Ghana are often faced with legal regulations that do not support the protection of their rights. Widows regularly lose land and possessions and are evicted from their homes once they lose their spouse. For widows living with HIV, stigma and discrimination is often exacerbated.

Responding to these challenges, Akumaa Mama Zimbi, a Ghanaian women’s rights leader, television and radio talk show host, launched a network (WANE) to support sustainable socioeconomic development for widows. The project equips widows in Ghana with employable skills, human rights education, reproductive health and social integration programmes. Through WANE, more than 400 widow groupings have been formed in Ghana, with membership swelling to more than 8000 nationwide. The organization also provides small income generating and training workshops for widows in dressmaking, bread baking, beekeeping and small-scale farming.

“We are passionately committed to striving for advocacy of a comprehensive policy and legal direction for elevating the standards of widows, and all women, in Ghana. We need to empower women, and make sure men are also fully part of the discussion—we need to work together for a better future,” Ms Zimbi said.

During the meeting, Ogyedom Tsetsewah, a Queen Mother (traditional community leader) and advocate for women’s rights, explained that if a widow is facing injustice, she has little or no recourse within her community and within the courts, and that traditional leaders have an important role to play. “There is a clear role for traditional leaders in advocating with the national political leadership on the situation of widows and the critical importance of investing in social protection of widows to allow them to contribute to community resilience,” she said.

Women and young people shared their experiences of HIV-related discrimination and hardship. It was a very honest discussion, where many women shared their own impressions of experiencing friends being stigmatized and discriminated against, even by themselves.

Ms Beagle commended the courage and resilience of the widows, while reflecting that, “Widows living with HIV often face triple discrimination: because they are widows, because they are women and because of their HIV status. Through economic empowerment, they become self-reliant and even leaders in their communities, can build awareness of HIV and stand up against stigma and discrimination.”

MZF is currently working on establishing a permanent location to provide vocational training, human rights education, reproductive health and social integration programmes for the daughters of vulnerable widows in Ghana. This initiative when implemented will provide skills and jobs for more than 3000 vulnerable young women.

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