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Grassroots engagement and economic empowerment: Combating HIV & AIDS amongst the vulnerable groups in Southern Africa in the new millennium

24th August 2010

By: In On Africa IOA


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This CAI discussion paper seeks to highlight intervention strategies that can be socially constructed in southern Africa to militate against the devastating effects of the HIV & AIDS pandemic. According to UNAIDS, "sub-Saharan Africa remains the region most heavily affected by HIV. In 2009, sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 67% of HIV infections worldwide, 68% of new HIV infections among adults and 91% of new HIV infections among children. The region also accounted for 72% of the world's AIDS-related deaths in 2008."(2) One does not need to be a medical doctor to fully understand the debilitating effects of the HIV & AIDS scourge in southern Africa in the new millennium. Grassroots engagement and economic empowerment intervention strategies can alleviate some of the burdens that are disproportionately placed on the shoulders of the vulnerable groups such as widows and HIV & AIDS-orphaned children.

The epidemic continues to have an enormous impact on households, communities, businesses, public services and national economies in the sub-Saharan region. The World Bank paints a dark and gloomy picture of the devastation wrought and yet to be incurred due to the pandemic. Its 2009 report entitled "HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa" stated that southern Africa remains the global epicentre of HIV & AIDS pandemic.(3) Also referred to as a "hyper" epidemic in the countries at the epicentre, this crisis is a continental and global exception, unlikely to occur elsewhere. In 2009, the region accounted for 35% of all people living with HIV worldwide and 32% of the world's new HIV infections and AIDS deaths."(4) In addition, UNAIDS (2008) counted eight countries in southern Africa (Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe) that had a national adult HIV prevalence higher than 15%. There are conflicting statistics given out to account for the incidences of prevalence. One school of thought suggests that prevalence rates in the region have for the most part levelled off while another view sharply contradicts that notion. Although Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe appear to have had significant declines in prevalence, UNAIDS cautions that the extent of these declines is not clear due to inconsistencies in the statistics provided by different organisations working.


Grassroots level engagement and economic empowerment in particular are sometimes perceived as essential and culturally relevant means to alleviate abject poverty experienced mostly by women and HIV & AIDS-orphaned children. Income generating projects such as microfinance and health education, coordinated at the community level, can be established for the sustenance of the HIV & AIDS-orphaned children.

Grassroots engagement in the traditional African family


Grassroots engagement in sub-Saharan Africa can manifest itself in a number of ways that shows the interconnectedness in the traditional African family. In the context of the HIV & AIDS scourge, it can mean collaborative work that can be locally organized to raise income for the vulnerable groups such as HIV & AIDS-orphaned children and widows. Njoh expressed the view that the African family continues to maintain its unique structure and identity despite several years of brutal assault from oppressive forces.(5) In addition, Njoh observed that in Africa, the family is a highly valued social unit which plays an extremely important role in African society. The significance of family in traditional Africa, where there are no formal social welfare institutions, derives from the fact that it provides a platform on which members offer and receive assistance, encouragement and guidance. In the context of HIV and stigma, family support is particularly important to cope with the challenges and frustrations endured by the HIV & AIDS inflicted and affected persons. Income-generating projects such as microfinance, poultry keeping and garden marketing organised at a family or societal level can provide the much needed economic empowerment and sustenance.

The roles that men and women play in society are not biologically determined; they are socially determined, changing and changeable. Although they may be justified as being required by culture or religion, these roles vary widely by locality and change over times. Empowering women and HIV & AIDS orphaned children in southern Africa will go a long way in combating HIV and AIDS epidemic. Grassroots engagement means both men and women should have the essential skills that they can pass on to their family members. In the event that either the husband or wife dies the surviving spouse must be able to provide for the family. Extended families can play a vital role in the provision of moral, social and financial support when both men and women are knowledgeable. Depending on the geopolitical region a number of income-generating projects can be started on a family or societal basis in an effort to combat HIV & AIDS.

The most serious analytical attempt to define grassroots organisations suggests that, in simple terms, they are essentially local-scope voluntary or, synonymously, membership organisations. In more analytical detail, Smith gives a connotative (vs. denotative) definition of grassroots organisation as "locally based, significantly autonomous, volunteer-run, formal non-profit (i.e., voluntary, third sector, civil society) groups that manifest substantial voluntary altruism as groups and use the associational form of organisation and, thus, have official memberships of volunteers who perform most, and often all, of the work/activity done in and by these nonprofits."(6) Grassroots engagement strategies rely on people who can put a human face on an issue, problem, or solution, or personalise a policy description. This bond creates a personal connection that inspires trust, leading to a personal willingness to take an action and/or recommend that action to other people who might be facing a similar situation. The number of HIV & AIDS-orphaned children is an ever growing problem to contend in sub-Saharan Africa. Their daily plight and agony can draw the attention of the local societies to come up with practical grassroots oriented solutions.

Economic empowerment of women and HIV & AIDS- orphaned children

According to Smith, "grassroots strategies centre around building relationships that can be maintained and strengthened over time, so the prospects for sustained loyalty to your campaign and issue are high."(7) Initial up-front investments in grassroots infrastructure, such as trust-building, education and economic support, to combat HIV & AIDS, for example, promise long-term returns. Through such multi-faceted grassroots approaches applied in southern Africa, many vulnerable groups can be empowered to address and overcome the impacts of the pandemic. For instance, income generating projects can empower women who are usually in charge of securing water, food and fuel and of overseeing family health and diet. Education is one of the most important means of empowering women with knowledge, skills, and self-confidence necessary to participate fully in the development process. A key tool of economic empowerment critical in the fight against HIV & AIDS is microfinance.

The United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA) notes that microfinance is often defined as financial services for poor and low-income clients. In practice, the term is often used more narrowly to refer to loans and other services from providers that identify themselves as "microfinance institutions" (MFIs).(8) With minimal formal education in southern Africa, microfinance projects can be introduced to jumpstart the economic empowerment of many women and HIV & AIDS-orphaned children who are in dire need. These institutions tend to use new methods developed over the last 30 years to deliver very small loans to unsalaried borrowers, taking little or no collateral. They include group lending and shared liability, pre-loan savings requirements, gradually increasing loan sizes, and an implicit guarantee of ready access to future loans if present loans are repaid fully and promptly. More broadly, microfinance refers to a movement that envisions a world in which low-income households have permanent access to a range of high quality financial services to finance their income-producing activities, build assets, stabilise consumption and protect against risks. Many families in sub-Saharan Africa have very limited financial resources at their disposal. HIV & AIDS-related deaths are claiming thousands of lives every day. Grassroots engagement and economic empowerment brings solidarity and self reliance to many affected families.


In conclusion, it can be plausibly argued that grassroots engagement in southern Africa can be used as a means to educate vulnerable groups, such as women and HIV & AIDS-orphaned children and to empower them economically. It is important to realise that grassroots engagement is a labour-intensive effort that requires significant investments of time, human resources and organisational support. By leveraging the extended family network prevalent in southern Africa, it is possible to empower widows and other vulnerable groups in an effort to combat HIV & AIDS in that region. Economic empowerment gives women an elevated position from which to combat HIV & AIDS since they will have a greater say in their sexual lives. Women in many cases need formal education, HIV education, access to microfinance and strong structural support from their societies. HIV & AIDS-orphaned children will gain some knowledge to make informed decisions through grassroots engagement and economic empowerment. Poverty and lack of opportunities in sub-Saharan Africa especially among less educated women and HIV & AIDS-orphaned children fuels HIV & AIDS pandemic to greater heights. It is through the realisation of this fact that grassroots and economic engagement intervention strategies are recommended in this paper to combat HIV & AIDS in the new millennium.

Written by: Dr. Moses B. Rumano (1)


(1) Contact Dr. Moses Rumano through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's HIV & AIDS Unit (
(2) ‘HIV and AIDS Global Trends", UNAIDS, 2009,
(3) ‘HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa', UNAIDS, 2009,
(4) Ibid.
(5) A. Njoh, "Tradition, Culture and Development in Africa: historical lessons for modern development planning," Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2010.
(6) A. Smith, "Microfinance and its Application," New Jersey: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2000.
(7) Ibid.
(8) ‘Gender Equity: an end in itself and a cornerstone of development',



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