Woineshet Mulusew – An advocate for disabled women who live with HIV

Walking into Woineshet’s office on a sunny afternoon, I immediately noticed that her humble office is well organized and staffed by friendly employees. Everyone I met while waiting for Woineshet to finish her phone call greeted me with a huge smile and offered a warm beverage. Enter the General Manager of Equal Opportunity for Disabled Women who live with HIV – Wrt. Woineshet Mulusew.

Eleven years ago, Woineshet established a non-governmental organization which advocates for equal opportunity for disabled women who live with the HIV virus.  Herself a blind woman, Woineshet decided to be an activist up on finding out she was living with the HIV virus. The organization that she leads is aptly named” Equal Opportunity for Disabled Women who live with HIV”.  Before delving into the activities of the organization, I wanted to know about her background and therefore asked about her upbringing, education and experience prior to working as a General Manager of the NGO.Woineshet was born in Gondar town. She attended elementary school and became blind in grade 8. She then attended brail education at Catholic Mission School in Gondar. Later, she came to Addis to continue her education in Menilik secondary school.

Upon completing high school, she joined Alpha University and graduated in Human Resources. She became pregnant while at University and gave birth while studying. After a while, she found out her HIV status and became a member of Mekdem Ethiopia & Tesfa Goh Ethiopia associations for People Living with AIDS. Woineshet had always felt that there is a strong reason for an association that specifically works with disabled people who were living with the virus. Sharing her idea with fellow blind members of the associations, 7 of them established the current association. After many ups and downs, the organization for disabled HIV+ women, was formed and registered as an NGO.

Her first priority was raising awareness about Disability and HIV/AIDS among high school students. Woineshet says, “My doctor at the time warned me that doing this may entail facing lot of discrimination but I was determined to do what I set out to do.”  That simple organization now has 1155 beneficiaries. It works in partnership with many NGOs in reducing stigma against people living with HIV and assisting disabled women who are HIV+.  Thanks to Equal Opportunities for Disabled women who live with HIV/AIDS, there are women whose lives have taken a complete turnaround. Currently, there are 475 members who receive support in terms of food, clothes and medical treatment. Those who are able to work, however, are trained and given seed money to start a small businesses.

Woineshet is tremendously proud of the results of her organization and her team. She says” My team is very dedicated. Knowledge and confidence are also important to succeed in anything we choose to do.”

Woineshet encourages women – whether they are beneficiaries or employees of the organization – to first come forward and identify their needs. From basic needs such as food and clothes to training and jobs. As she believes education is an important key for self-sufficiency, education is one of her priorities. Education is provided through referral linkage.i.e. after identifying what the beneficiaries are  inclined to do, training institutions and technical schools will be  requested to provide relevant training. This ensures that the training is solution orientated. There are beneficiaries who have been trained in the fields of   teaching and selling beauty supplies, based on ability and interest.  After training, the trainees establish their own businesses or are gainfully employed in institutions that appreciate their newly learned skills.

Woineseht recognizes that, in our country, women who are disabled and HIV+ are seen as a burden but she wants people to know that there are a few brave souls who have won this constant battle against all odds. “It is important to encourage women who are disabled and HIV+ to be self sufficient “she adds. Elaborating on the issue, she continues” Disability is a possibility for anyone. Disabled women need social life like everyone else. We have the ability to love, be educated, have a family, have children. That is why I became an advocate for equal rights for disabled women”.

Through her work, Woineshet has established herself as  the utmost authority regarding disabled HIV+  Women as her  first hand experience is very valuable in  explaining fully how it feels t be in this situation. She also serves as an example of hard work and effective management because her achievements are known by members of the association, employees and partners.

As a membership driven association, the number of members would have led to conflict had it not been for the strong leadership of Woineshet.  Retention of employees is exemplary in the association except for not being able to pay for higher salaries that are offered to her employees by other organizations.” They are like family” says Woineshet appreciatively.

The NGO Woineshet leads have adopted an innovative approach to its work. Previously, disability was seen as a liability, a source of stigma and discrimination. Even mothers used to lock up their children but by starting from counseling, Woineshet has shown them how many obstacles she overcame in the last 11 years. Despite many challenges, the business skills training coupled with psychological support are paying off now. “There is a brighter future”, Woineshet says. Now beneficiaries are provided with comprehensive small business training, vocational training and an association is formed for obtaining shades from the local administration.

In order to plan for successors, Woineshet depends on her associate members who regularly attend counseling sessions. These are counselors who know what to do with the 250 children with disability. Those who work for Woineshet are always told her full story and they get inspired by it. Woineshet is also an avid trainer and conducts trainings regularly; the latest of which was for Action Aid Ethiopia where 60 women recently had training and received seed money to start their own business.

Last year, the NGO celebrated 10 years of the formation of the association through fund raising programs, participating in prevention of violence programs and through sharing experience with those who have passed through gender based violence. Woineshet believes that more change will be evident in the future through lobbying policy makers and by speaking on behalf of disabled HIV+ women to the parliament’s social permanent committee. Woineshet’s vision for the future is for society to change dramatically and provide access to education, jobs, and bring about changes to disabled HIV + women.  She also hopes for Gender based violence to be extinct and for people to realize that the country changes for the better when people change in their thinking.

AWiB salutes Woineshet’s advocacy and commitment to disabled women living with HIV.

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