Sophie Harman


British aid policy remains committed to helping women and girls fight HIV/AIDS, but, as Sophie Harman explores in her new movie Pili, too often the human realities behind these policies are forgotten.



On a visit to a health centre in Malawi in 2015, the then Minister for International Development Lynne Featherstone reiterated the UK government’s commitment to the global HIV/AIDS response, with a particular focus on women and girls:

‘new infection rates remain too high, particularly amongst adolescent girls. It is a sad fact that this vulnerable group is being left behind… I want to see zero new infections, zero deaths from HIV/AIDS and zero discrimination. This won’t happen unless we prioritise marginalised groups. This means addressing stigma, empowering women and girls and reducing the violence against them that makes them so vulnerable to the epidemic.’

Since 2015 a lot has changed in British politics, however the government’s priorities and commitment to the HIV/AIDS response has remained the same, with the new Minister for International Development Priti Patel pledging £366million a year over 3 years to the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Similar to the coalition government, the priorities of the new government are performance based financing and women and girls as a vulnerable population.

In a year where the world seems to be taking an anti-globalist turn, financial commitments to HIV/AIDS that align with global agendas and a continued focus on women and girls is to be welcomed. However as my research has shown such priorities can be contradictory (performance targets in the HIV/AIDS response tend to reduce gender equality to a tick-box exercise in practice) and often end up homogenising of womenandgirls as a single category regardless of wealth, place, employment, family status, or age. Politicians talk about womenandgirls as if they have shared lived experiences and that such experiences are framed by their HIV status alone. These women cannot be complicated, make difficult decisions, and are often seen as victims with limited agency. It is this framing and homogeneity of womenandgirls, and an apparent disconnect between policy and the lived experience of the everyday lives of women living with HIV/AIDS that led me to engage in a unique research project that would give voice to a particular group of women living in rural Tanzania.

In 2015/16 I produced a feature film – PILI – about the everyday risk of HIV/AIDS, in collaboration with rural women from the Pwani region of Tanzania. The purpose of the film was to tell the story of one woman as she navigates her own self-stigma and position in the community as a single mother living with HIV, and the everyday risks she encounters working in the fields and managing her health. Pili makes difficult decisions and takes risks. She has agency and like all the female characters in the film has her own personality and human flaws. The film engages her agency as she navigates the structures of health, poverty, and gender. In so doing, as well as telling the story of the women in the film, PILI also addresses the wider themes of the socio-economic drivers of disease, social reproduction, African agency, and global health issues such as health systems, road safety, treatment adherence, and community health.


Still from the movie Pili. Copyright Sophie Harman, edited by Craig Dean Devine.

The film is a unique collaboration between me, film-makers (particularly co-writer and Director Leanne Welham), and the women of Pwani whose lives became the basis of the story. These women not only shaped the story, but also acted in the film, helped bring in other cast members, and opened up their homes and places of work as locations. 65% of the total cast are HIV positive. I was able to establish a working relationship with these women through 10 years of working in the rural parts of Pwani as a trustee of the NGO Trans Tanz. I knew the Doctors working in the local care and treatment centre which enabled the crew to film in the clinic, I knew the local politicians, and the community knew that given by decade of work I had a longstanding commitment to the area. Making the film would have both a short term benefit for the women in the film (they were paid a small fee to participate) and a potential long term benefit as any profits made from the film go back to the communities in which the film is set.

In making PILI my intended impact was simple: make the everyday lives and experiences of women living with HIV/AIDS visible and show that they are not a homogenous category but real people with flaws, passions and interests. I also wanted to allow these women to tell their stories themselves instead of representing them in academic work: film allows them to act, inhabit a character, and tell their own story in their own language. In Tanzania I want PILI to be used as a space in which people can talk and engage on the experiences and risks she faces. For the UK government I want to evoke greater awareness that there is more to womenandgirls than a vulnerable population to be quantified as a performance target, but real women with everyday flaws whose experiences are shaped by the socio-economic structures in which they live.

Note: More information on PILI can be found on IMDb, Facebook and Twitter @PiliFilm. For more on the making of PILI there is a blog with updates from the start of the process and this article published in African Affairs PILI was made possible by an AXA Insurance Outlook Award as part of a wider project on the everyday risk of HIV/AIDS.

About the Author:

Sophie HarmanSophie Harman is Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary University of London.

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