Friends of AIDS Support Trust (FAST) in Malawi has extensive experience working with vulnerable women, girls, and orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs) in addressing sexual and reproductive health (SRH) concerns and women’s empowerment.
The AIDS pandemic undermined traditional support structures that sustain many families, leaving many children without parents, and reversing the expectation that adult children would be alive to provide care for their parents as they aged. Grandmothers stepped back into caregiver roles and the consequences of serving as the primary caregiver were often severe, challenging and have an enduring impact for grandmothers.
FAST developed psychosocial support training for 120 grandmothers. The training included: building resilience, communicating with children in times of difficulty and Memory Approaches which involves using memory work to help OVC understand and remain connected to the people and things that they value. As grandmothers are trained, they are organized in groups and each grandmother visits a peer twice a week and offers support by teaching what she learned in her training.
FAST is known, trusted and deeply connected in the community. Their leadership allows them to mobilize community members, and increase ownership and competency to manage the AIDS pandemic and other emerging issues. When Cyclone Idai struck the community in 2019, it was this in-depth understanding of community that drove FAST to the forefront of the disaster response.

“We breathe a bit easier” 
Organizations support grandmothers as they face climate disasters

“I was told there will be floods, there will be cyclones,”, grandmother Margaret shared with staff members of Friends of AIDS Support Trust (FAST) in Malawi. Hurricanes, droughts and other climate change disasters affect every country in sub-Saharan Africa, and the challenges are greatest in communities facing poverty, marginalization and the AIDS pandemic. Grandmothers in communities where our partners work know this firsthand. 

This summer, FAST staff members visited Margaret in her community, which was devastated by Cyclone Idai in March. Three of her four children had died of AIDS, and with her remaining daughter Edith*, she was raising five grandchildren. For years, FAST has supported grandmothers as they cared for orphaned and vulnerable children, and during the cyclone, the organization provided food and clean-water supplies to many grandmothers. 

Months after the storm, when FAST staff arrived at Margaret’s house to check in, they met Edith arriving home with bundles of grass. The family sold it in a local market to generate an income. Margaret appreciated how hard her daughter worked to support the grandchildren, who sometimes didn’t have enough food and couldn’t go to school because of health issues. FAST knew that grandmother Margaret* wasn’t scared of poverty; she knew what to do during food shortages; she knew how to till land, how to prepare it before the rains came, assuming they came. Her resilience and ingenuity has sustained her family. Now, the AIDS pandemic, compounded by environmental extremes due to climate change is putting her resilience and ingenuity to the test.

Melting ice, rising sea levels and warmer oceans are worsening the destructive capacity of storms, droughts, floods and desertification in sub-Saharan Africa. Cyclone Idai washed away crops and wrecked the lives of millions of people in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Margaret told FAST that she’d struggled to provide food to her grandchildren, struggled to keep them in school, and that they’d had breathing difficulties because of all the stress. Things were better now, partly thanks to FAST. Community-based organizations know what families and communities need as new challenges emerge because they are community members themselves. 

“The support from FAST helps us to breathe a bit easier,” she said. 

* Pseudonyms to protect their identities. 

From Stephen Lewis Foundation Grandmothers Campaign Grassroots, Fall 2019.