Women rally to Evelyn’s cry to fight HIV and bring peace home

HealthcareHIV and AIDSPeacebuildingSexual HealthWomens health

For Evelyn Letio, peacebuilding in South Sudan means restoring peace within communities and between family members. As a coordinator and co-founder of National Empowerment of Positive Women United (NEPWU), she knows the many struggles faced by people affected or infected by HIV – isolation from society, rejection by their families and lack of medication and food are common.

Testing and counselling for HIV and Sexually Transmitted Infection screening among the truck drivers and Boda Boda, local bicycle and motorcycle taxi riders commonly found in East Africa. Photo: Owiro Joseph Opoka

‘Over time, I realised that restoring peace in the family is an important part of peacebuilding.’

Evelyn Letio

‘My work is not only to address HIV. It is also about bringing peace home,’ says Evelyn in Juba where I meet her together with some of the women who are part of her growing network of volunteers. 

Beating bitterness 

In the late 1980s, Evelyn was living in Uganda with her family when, sadly, her husband passed away. To her shock, she soon found out that she was HIV-positive. 

‘When I first learnt I was HIV-positive, I wanted to bring my dead husband out of the ground and cut him to pieces,’ says Evelyn. She describes the anger and bitterness after her initial diagnosis and how she locked herself in a room alone blaming her late husband for HIV. 

‘But then God intervened. In the midst of my illness and despair, I heard God’s voice telling me: “My daughter, with or without HIV, your life must continue,”’ she explains. 

This renewed Evelyn’s spirit and she prayed for forgiveness and courage to be open about her status in order to raise awareness and tackle the stigma around HIV. 

Evelyn Letio is programme director of National Empowerment of Positive Women United (NEPWU). The organisation’s motto is: We are united as one woman, one voice for a better solution.

Tackling stigma 

In 2006, Evelyn returned from Uganda to South Sudan and soon noticed there were many people living with HIV who desperately needed help. The work started organically. At first she simply gave her phone number to people and helped them to receive support or services. It didn’t take long for Evelyn to realise that it is the women who are most affected by HIV. So, together with other women, she established NEPWU in South Sudan in 2013. 

The network operates primarily through volunteers across the country who educate women on self-care and how to prevent further spread of the virus. It also advises them on how to access services and medication. Raising awareness about rights of HIV-positive people and providing practical support are also an essential part of the work the women do. The network currently has around 1,600 members, most of whom have a positive status. Many are also survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.

Inspiring others 

Evelyn is part of Tearfund’s Inspired Individuals programme, which develops and connects emerging leaders around the world. 

‘When Tearfund called me to be an Inspired Individual, my eyes really opened. I used to think peacebuilding is only this big thing connected to politics. Then, through Inspired Individuals, I realised that restoring peace in the family is an important part of peacebuilding.’ 

South Sudan, the world’s newest state, has been devastated by civil war since December 2013. More than 4.5 million people have been displaced and sexual and gender-based violence remain rampant. There are enormous needs for restoring relationships and building peace. Evelyn admits that her work is not easy. 

‘Sometimes I am too overwhelmed when I visit the women and I cannot sleep during the night,’ she explains. But she perseveres. The volunteers and women around her keep her going and words in the Bible, especially Psalms 27 and 23 and the story of Esther, provide her with encouragement and comfort. 

‘I have powerful women who go out as volunteers to do this work. My spirit is lifted because of them.’ 

Find out more about World Aids Day, which is marked on 1 December 2018; this year’s theme encourages everyone to know their HIV status.

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Sini Maria Heikkila
Sini Maria Heikkila is Humanitarian Policy Officer at Tearfund. Email: sini.heikkila@tearfund.org