Working together develops the capacity of women to campaign for better living. Credit: Paul Weinberg/Oxfam
Working together develops the capacity of women to campaign for better living

South Africa: Working together gives support to women affected by HIV

“Sewing and Fancy Stitch helps me a lot in times of loneliness; it brings a smile on my face”
Philile Mathenjwa

Intricate hand-embroidered textiles are brightening the lives of hundreds of South African women affected by HIV. Working together on the quilt helps the women develop bonds and forms part of their emotional support.


Jabu Nxumalo knew only hardship in her life, until she joined Fancy Stitch – a partner organisation that Oxfam Australia supports in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa – five years ago.


Coming from a family of 12, Jabu became pregnant as a teenager and dropped out of school for a year. Two years later her mother, the family’s main breadwinner, died and Jabu was forced to look for work. Eventually, she found a job cleaning peoples’ homes for 250 Rand (AUD $38) a month.


“The situation was very bad,” Jabu says. “Things started to get better when I joined Fancy Stitch. It made a huge change in my life and my family. I have built my house and support my family. I’d like to thank Fancy Stitch for contributing to change in my life.”


Fancy Stitch supports women living in the Ingwavuma area of KwaZulu-Natal by bringing them together to make exquisite, brightly-coloured handicrafts, artworks and textiles. The women, affectionately known as the “Hot Girls” create unique works that give an intimate portrayal of their lives – HIV, farming, livestock, cities, families, gardens, work and wildlife.


Ingwavuma is considered to be one of the poorest and most isolated areas of South Africa. About 90% of the population is unemployed, around 40% are living with HIV and 50% live on less than $1.50 a day. The burden of HIV and AIDS, such as the cost of medical treatment, funerals of multiple family members, and caring for children orphaned by AIDS, drains household and community resources, furthering entrenching poverty in the area.


Artist Maryna Hess established Fancy Stitch in 2001 after moving to Ingwavuma with her doctor husband. She wanted to find a way to use her skills to support a community devastated by HIV and poverty.


“My belief in the strength that people acquire when working for an income and the dignity that [is] restored in the process, was the motivation for this income-generating initiative,” Fancy Ms Hess says. “The joy of making a thing of beauty that is admired by many gives one a sense of special-ness.”


The organisation had just 27 members when it started in 2001, a figure that has now swelled to more than 350, including some men. Sadly, 44 members have died from AIDS since the group began, a harsh reality of the epidemic and its impact. This loss has inspired the members to start making a memorial quilt to commemorate their colleagues’ work and lives.


Working together on the quilt helps the women develop bonds and forms part of their emotional support. As does all the work of the group, which enables members to share and express their stories and hopes in a way that can also earn them money.


“Sewing and Fancy Stitch helps me a lot in times of loneliness; it brings a smile on my face,” member Philile Mathenjwa says.


“Even when people don’t want me I don’t worry because I get all the love I need from Fancy Stitch.”