Economic and AIDS Crises in Zimbabwe Force Elderly Women to Live in Poverty

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Economic and AIDS Crises in Zimbabwe Force Elderly Women to Live in Poverty

Publication Date

FILABUSI, ZIMBABWE – Lydia Banda, 70, came to Zimbabwe from Zambia in the 1960s in search of a better life. As a young newlywed, she moved here with her husband, who had a better chance of getting a job in the region’s industrial hub.

Banda never had any children, so when her husband died in 1998, she was on her own. But she says in Sindebele, the local language, that she did not despair because she and her husband built themselves a home and obtained land to till in Filabusi, a rural district of Matebeleland South province with low rainfall.

But now, as the years have started to take their toll on the once strong Banda, she longs for death. No longer able to walk upright without the aid of a stick, it has now become a struggle to survive.

“Life has now become unbearable,” she says, as she calls to her neighbor’s children to fetch water for her. “It’s hard having to depend on other people for things you used to do yourself.”

Banda can no longer manage the distance to the river with a bucket on her head, so now she depends on her neighbor’s 10-year-old daughter. The girl brings her a 20-liter bucket of water every day for cooking, bathing and other chores.

But hers is not just a case of declining abilities. She is one of many rural elderly women, most of whom are widowed, who still have to do hard physical labor in their twilight years to make ends meet.

Banda wakes up at dawn to go to the fields. She has already started preparing for the next farming season.

But because of a back problem that she attributes to a lifetime of hard work, it takes her more than an hour to travel the two-kilometer distance from her homestead to the fields. By the time she gets there, the sun is already scorching hot.

“I have no one to go back home to, so I just bring my drinking water with me and spend the day working the fields,” she says.

Banda collects twigs on her way home that she will use as firewood to cook her one meal of the day and to heat up water to bathe.

Banda is haggard, and her skin is rough from years of toil and the lack of hygiene and care that comes with poverty. She says she has not applied Vaseline to her skin since her husband died more than a decade ago.

“Times are hard,” she says as she scatters grain on the ground for her chickens. “I can no longer afford such luxuries.”

A decade of economic crisis has robbed the elderly here of financial security in their old age. On top of this, the HIV and AIDS epidemic has left them in charge of caring for orphaned grandchildren and adult children, instead of vice versa. Nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, strive to alleviate the burden on the elderly and give them the care they need. Meanwhile, the government is working on a bill to provide them with more social protection.

The elderly remain the poorest members of society, with little or no income to sustain them, according to Help Age Zimbabwe, a charity organization that works with the elderly here.

The AIDS pandemic has seen a rise in households where the elderly are either taking care of orphans or are nursing the sick, as Help Age Zimbabwe estimates that about 60 percent of HIV and AIDS orphans here are living with grandparents. There were 1,000 children in Zimbabwe orphaned by AIDS as of 2009, according to UNICEF’s latest statistics.

Zimbabwe also suffered an economic meltdown at the turn of the century. It was characterized by chronic food shortages, an unemployment rate of more than 80 percent and the world’s highest inflation, which at one point reached 11.2 million percent, according to various reports. Zimbabwe’s economy declined more than 45 percent from 1999 to 2008, according to the World Bank. Although the economy showed a turnaround from 2009 to 2010, citizens are still feeling the effects of the decade-long crisis.

In the past, especially during Zimbabwe’s early independence years, elderly widows like Banda received government stipends. They could also live off the pensions of their deceased spouses, but the past few years of economic turmoil have rendered the pensions useless.

Agnes Siziba, 56, who lives in the same village as Banda, says her husband worked as a teacher for 40 years before his retirement in 2005. He contributed to the pension fund all his working life in preparation for a need-free retirement.

So she says it came as a blow when they found out that all the money they had been planning on was useless after the dollarization of the economy following the economic meltdown.

“We worked hard so we won’t be destitute in old age, but now we are treated like beggars when all we want is the money that we invested,” she says.

Siziba says the monthly payout of $6 USD that they get is not even enough for bus fare from their rural home to collect it.

In addition to the hardship created by the economy, the HIV and AIDS crisis has also burdened the elderly here. Instead of being looked after in their old age, they must take care of adult children with HIV or AIDS and any orphaned grandchildren.

Susan Mpofu also lives in the village. Her grief is hard to mask as it is written all over her face. Hers has become the typical story of living with death on her doorstep and epitomizes the extent to which HIV and AIDS have ravaged poor communities across Zimbabwe.

Mpofu, 62, had seven children, and one by one they all left for neighboring South Africa in search of greener pastures during the country’s economic meltdown. And one by one, they returned on their deathbeds because of AIDS-related infections. She says she had to nurse all of them – and bury all of them.

Now she lives with her three orphaned grandchildren, ages 3, 4 and 6. At a stage in life where she says she should be taken care of, she spends her days bathing and cooking for her young grandchildren.

She depends on the generosity of her neighbors to provide them with clothing and food. But they can do only so much, she says.

“Most days we go hungry, as I no longer have the strength to work the fields,” she says.

She speaks with undisguised emotion, relaying a life that has been punctuated with untold tragedy.

“I try to be strong for these children, as I am the only one they have, but I worry about what will happen to them when I die,” Mpofu says.  

For researchers and frontline health workers, the impact of HIV and AIDS is largely being measured through the social conditions they have created. They note how traditional family life has been distorted, as the elderly have been unwillingly thrust into the center of the crisis with the task of caring for children with HIV or AIDS and grandchildren orphaned by the epidemic.

NGOs here are doing what they can to help.

Priscilla Gavi, executive director of Help Age Zimbabwe, says they work to provide health packs to the elderly who are taking care of children living with HIV. The health packs include surgical gloves, which protect the old women as they tend to their sick sons and daughters.

“The HIV and AIDS epidemic in Zimbabwe has led to the fruition of households where older persons inherit the care of their grandchildren and dying parents of these incipient orphans,” Gavi says.

The difficult economic times have also prompted a reduction in the overall support the organization is getting from the corporate sector. Consequently, its work is, for now, limited to only a few rural districts.

Gavi says her organization prioritizes the provision of water and sanitation to the elderly in rural areas, as this remains one of the many challenges that old women face.

“We fix old boreholes and drill some more so that the elderly will not have to travel long distances to fetch water,” she says. “We also help them by constructing elevated Blair Toilets because some of them can no longer manage to relieve themselves in pit latrines.”

The organization also works to make agricultural inputs available to the elderly to try to alleviate the poverty in which many of them live.

Joseph Phuthi, part of the country’s traditional leadership structure as the headman of the women’s village, says the elderly are a crucial part of society and deserve respect and care.

“These old people are a source of knowledge for all of us,” he says. “They have a duty to pass on the cultures to younger generations, but we also have a duty to make sure they live in dignity.”

He says that they try as a community to help the elderly however they can. But he says that the national government and NGOs working in the area must help them find a permanent solution.

“The government must find a way to take care of the elderly because they are the ones who built this country,” he says. “We are where we are because of them, so we must not leave them on the wayside.”

According to sources here, the government doesn’t have a scheme in place to take care of the elderly except for an underfunded Social Welfare Department, leaving nongovernmental and faith-based organizations to provide for the elderly.

The government has been crafting a bill since 2002 that would compel the state to prioritize the welfare of the elderly. The bill seeks to prevent the exploitation of and discrimination against the elderly and to ensure their needs are catered for in the national budget or in health and other social services. But it has yet to be passed.

Earlier this year, the Zimbabwean government announced it was revisiting the laws that govern the affairs of the elderly after an outcry from pensioners that the law wasn’t protecting their savings after the economic meltdown.

“There is a bill for the elderly that is being crafted, and it will be presented to Parliament soon,” Paurina Mpariwa, labor and social services minister, said to state media in July 2011.

He said the government aimed to prioritize the social protection of the elderly through the bill.

“The move to craft the bill on the elderly was out of the realization that the number of vulnerable old people has been increasing at a very high rate, as young people who should be looking after old people are the ones who are dying first owing to the HIV and AIDS pandemic,” Mpariwa said.  

Phuthi has heard of the bill for the elderly, but he believes it is still a long way off.

“It might happen, but not in our lifetime,” he says.

Banda says she knows nothing about the bill, and she adds that she couldn’t care less.

“These government people are good at making promises, especially around election time,” she says. “But once they get elected, that will be the last you see of them. I just want to die with dignity.”

As the government wrestles with the HIV and AIDS crisis and economic reconstruction amid resource constraints and competing priorities, elderly throughout the country are calling on authorities to elevate their living standards. After all, many note that President Robert Mugabe is himself 87 years old.