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Page last updated at 09:03 GMT, Tuesday, 13 October 2009 10:03 UK

Zimbabwe women combat HIV stigma

By Steve Vickers
BBC Sport, Harare

Women's football is being used in Zimbabwe to confront the stigma associated with HIV and Aids.

ARV Swallows
ARV Swallows play in women's competitions for HIV positive players

A total of 16 women's teams now take part in competitions for players who have openly declared that they are HIV positive.

But despite the courage of the women involved, there has been much resistance.

ARV Swallows, based in the dusty Epworth township on the edge of Harare, have won all three competitions so far, the most recent being at the weekend.

"I'd like the whole world to know about my [HIV] status, so that others can be helped," goalkeeper Thandiwe Richard told BBC Sport.

"But some people in our community say, 'how can these people who are dying play football'.

"But football has helped my fitness, I can't say I'm ill now, but I wasn't well when I joined the ARV Swallows."

Zimbabwe is one of the countries most affected by the HIV pandemic, with latest figures showing a declining infection rate of 13.7%. Defender Meriah Kabudura, a mother of two, tested postive for HIV in 2001 having previously suffered from tuberculosis.

HIV positive footballer Thandiwe Richard
Thandiwe Richard is HIV positive and plays for ARV Swallows

"People laughed at us at first as we couldn't even kick the ball properly, but when we brought our first trophy to Epworth the community started to take us seriously," she said.

"I would want this football project to grow, and for other countries to follow what we have started in Zimbabwe. I'm so, so happy with what our team has done."

While the competitions are intended to reduce the stigma that many living with HIV face, there is still a long way to go.

Matches have been played in front of small crowds, something that makes project coordinator Chris Sambo angry.

"We wanted these games to be curtain-raisers for some of the big men's games, so that more people can see what these girls are doing," said Sambo, a former chief executive of Zimbabwe's Premier League.

"But many clubs are superstitious and they don't want women on the pitch before the game, and moreso when the women are known to be HIV positive."

The project began last December with 16 women's sides from Harare, but attempts to begin a men's competition have failed so far, as there are not enough players to form even two teams.

But Sambo still has big dreams for the future.

"Given the prevalence of HIV in the Southern African region, I'd love to see an international competition with the final played at the opening ceremony of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa," he said.



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see also
Football match marks Mandela 89th
18 Jul 07 |  Africa
Fatboy Slim in HIV awareness trip
14 Sep 06 |  Southern Counties
Botswana uses soccer against Aids
04 Sep 06 |  World Football


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