October 19, 2009
HIV-positive women in Zimbabwe are taking to the soccer pitch to fight misconceptions and stigma about HIV/AIDS. The project began in December, and enough women have joined to organize competitions among 16 teams. An attempt to organize a similar league for men has not yet succeeded, as there were not enough players to form even two teams. All the women players are public about their HIV status.
"I'd like the whole world to know about my [HIV] status, so that others can be helped," said Thandiwe Richard, goalie for the Epworth-based team ARV Swallows, which has won all three competitions to date. "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."
"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," said Meriah Kabudura, who plays defense for the team. "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."
"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 Chris Sambo, the project's coordinator and a former CEO of Zimbabwe's Premier League. "But many clubs are superstitious and they don't want women on the pitch before the game, and more so when the women are known to be HIV-positive."
However, Sambo is not deterred: "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."