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UN in double-edged fight against hunger and HIV

Majirata Latela

Lesotho’s vulnerable communities are in serious danger from the double-edged sword of a severe food shortage triggered by a devastating drought while also at the risk of contracting HIV as they frantically seek ways to put food on the table in a desperate effort to save their families from starvation.   
This grim warning has been issued by the Disaster Management Authority (DMA) to inform stakeholders of the impending danger and seek ways to avert or minimise the threats of these menaces which now appear to have found a permanent home in the Mountain Kingdom due to a number of both social and natural factors.

But according to the United Nations (UN) Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, Salvator Niyonzima, these hunger-driven risks threatening the country could be averted if the affected communities are taught sustainable ways of growing their own food during these ever-increasing years of severe rain shortage that analysts have attributed to climate change.

Various UN agencies which include the UNFPA, WFP, FAO, and UNDP have been implementing projects since September 2018, which seek to address or alleviate the debilitating effects of this severe drought.

According to Niyonzima, if Basotho had enough food to eat on a daily basis, they would not be involved in dangerous activities that put their lives at risk by increasing their chances of contracting HIV–the infection which causes AIDS whose cure is yet to be found through conventional medical research.

“Even though drought has hit hard on the country, I would like to urge farmers to go back to the fields and plough their fields so as to feed their families and also sell to their communities,” Niyonzima said.

Keyhole gardens

He also urged all households to have keyhole gardens whose special design enables them to retain moisture for a long time during prolonged drought spells, thereby producing the much-needed vegetables.

According to Niyonzima, people taking medication to fight HIV/AIDS need adequate food with all the required nutritious to avoid possible negative reaction to the treatment.   

“Anti-Retroviral Treatment (ART) is very strong and needs people who eat a balanced diet. The medication is so strong that if one takes it on an empty stomach, it makes them sick.

“People on ARVs have shown, in many cases in Lesotho, that sometimes they have to take their medication on an empty stomach which leads to the problem I just mentioned. As a result, this makes them skip their medication because they do not have the food to go with the ARVs,” Niyonzima added.

Meanwhile, Liphiring Clinic, situated in the remote area of Mohale’s Hoek district, has seen an escalating number of patients losing weight, allegedly due to inadequate food resulting from the drought

The Liphiring Clinic Nurse-in-Charge, Marefiloe ’Molaoa (pictured), says locals have not been able to harvest enough from their fields because of inadequate rainfall hence the malnourishment.

Liphiring Clinic Nurse-in-Charge, Marefiloe ’Molaoa

’Molaoa further said Mohale’s Hoek was among four other districts hard-hit by drought as well as experiencing higher new HIV-infections due to the escalating rate at which Basotho migrate to South Africa mainly to seek employment.

She also noted other social ills such as childhood marriages, gender-based and sexual violence, as well as rape, were adding to the increase of new HIV/AIDS cases during these vulnerable times of drought.

“During these times, you’ll find cases of more men engaging in sexual violence, rape, and gender-based violence maybe as a result of their stress from losing their means to make a livelihood and as a result, easily end up contracting HIV and resultantly infecting their innocent spouses,” said ’Molaoa.

On protection from such Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) such as HIV, Niyonzima said the UN’s focus was on children, men, women, youths, and people living with HIV/AIDS who were reported to be migrating to seek employment away from their families.

He also noted their focus also covered vulnerable children left behind in  rural areas by their parents seeking jobs in major cities and also those at risk of rape and harassment from border community members.

“Because of the scarcity of water, women and children travel for long hours to get water and sometimes they find themselves at the risk of being abused or raped.

“Parents also do not have enough food to feed their families, so they end up  forcing their young daughters to get married in order to solve the problem,” said Niyonzima.

In a related development, UN agencies, in collaboration with the DMA, last week embarked on a tour of the two southern districts of Mohale’s Hoek and Quthing, to meet beneficiaries and ascertain the progress of on-going projects aimed at assisting people who are food-insecure and in need of protection.

A Ha Mojakhomo resident, Malitlhare Pebane, from a family of five, said she received assistance in the form of seed and gardening tools which her family had since used to grow vegetables using water-efficient keyhole gardening.

Pebane also said with the UN agencies’ interventions, she could now feed her family with all kinds of vegetables she had grown herself in her own garden.

She further noted she was now selling some of her produce to buy other family necessities, adding her life had dramatically changed for the better.

Matlokotsi Molefe, another beneficiary of this UN project, who received  assistance in the form of food-distribution and a M600 monthly cash-grant paid through mobile money services, said she was now able to sustain her family of seven, all thanks to the world humanitarian organisation.

Molefe also said among her family members benefiting from these UN interventions was an orphaned child who is HIV-positive.

“I did not have money to buy food for all my family members. I would struggle even to buy uniform for my grandson but ever since I got help from the World Food Programme (WFP), my family members do not sleep on  empty stomachs anymore,” said Molefe.

She continued: “Like I said, sometimes we used to sleep on empty stomachs during  hard times when food was scarce.

project beneficiary: Matlokotsi Molefe

“This meant those who were taking medication, like ARVs, had to do so on empty stomachs, which made the situation even worse for them,” she recollects.

Molefe also says during those very difficult and traumatic days, she had to wake up very early in the morning and go around the village begging for ‘piece jobs’ just to get something to eat for her family.

With teary eyes, Molefe shared details of how hunger left her family devastated, saying: “If I was unlucky, then we’d go for a few more days without food, while my grandson was the only fortunate one due to the  feeding programme at his school, where he would get something to eat.”

According to Dr Amohelang Mashea from the Ntšekhe Hospital in Mohale’s Hoek district, the local community was also faced with the challenges of malnutrition among children under five years of age.

Dr Mashea also said Ntšekhe Hospital had received 30 cases of malnutrition between January and March this year and unfortunately, four children from that figure had died.

“Two of the children we lost were HIV-positive while the other two were negative,” said Dr Mashea.

He also said most of the cases the hospital handled were of children who were readmitted to hospital after defaulting on their recovery programme.

“Most children we admit are referrals from local clinics. We usually admit to monitor the progress of the children while they recover, then later discharge them but they come back after sometime still because of malnutrition.

 “We have realised that the reasons why these children come back to the hospital is because after recuperation, we take them back to the same families where there is no food, hence their return because they would go hungry once again,” Dr Mashea added.

Another challenge she believes leads to malnutrition is that most of the children are taken care of by their elderly grandparents and adolescent mothers who do not fully understand how to provide the requisite care and what constitutes a balanced diet.

With the prevailing drought that Lesotho is currently facing, the UN, through its Central Emergency Response Fund, has secured M79, 206, 106 million (USD 5,550, 533) to help 273, 635 people in need of humanitarian assistance.

Sectors hard-hit by drought include agriculture and food security; health and nutrition; water, sanitation and hygiene; protection which includes gender-based violence, child-protection, migration as well as HIV/AIDS.

According to the UN coordinator, since Lesotho had the second-highest  HIV prevalence rate in the world at 25 percent and only second to Eswatini which is at 27.2 percent, there was need to help families who were food-insecure and caring for relatives on medication as such patients could not take their treatment on empty stomachs without dire consequences.


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