Helping women in Africa's battle against HIV/AIDS


The world is increasingly calling for justice and peace for women, pleading for equality and denouncing violence against them. But as all this unfolds, we are still faced with startling facts about the vulnerability of women to HIV infection, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, where 61% of adults living with AIDS are women.?


Women bear the bulk of the burden of care, even though they may themselves be infected with HIV or indeed ill. We know that these efforts largely go unnoticed, unrecognised and unrewarded. These heroic contributions by women have been a significant factor in the prevention of the further spread of HIV. Women have taken steps to seek information for themselves, their families and communities, through involvement in home-based care services, peer education and widow support groups. ?


However, women need to do much more to mobilise their communities to change those aspects of culture that put them at risk of infection. This can only succeed with the full participation of all community members – traditional leaders and all other agents of socialisation, including men.


?One of the prime drivers of the epidemic is gender inequality and violence against women. One in every four women will experience sexual violence at the hands of an intimate partner. Although this issue is increasingly claiming space at national, regional and international forums, countries are not developing indicators to measure progress in this area. This is what women should demand. ??


Violence against women is also fuelled by the language used to describe it. Reframing communication is crucial. It is somewhat ‘acceptable’ to ignore violence against women if it is labelled a ‘domestic dispute’ because people feel that there would be an element of intrusion if they intervened. This attitude is often demonstrated when women report violence that has taken place at home: often law enforcement agencies attempt to ‘reconcile’ instead of prosecuting the perpetrator. The solution lies in a communication strategy that speaks to women as well as men. Women must be empowered not to tolerate violence and men must realise that they do not have to be violent in order to be men.


?Poverty fuels the spread of HIV in many ways. Women must hold governments to invest more to ensure that significant progress is made towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty. Its alleviation, and women’s economic empowerment, have the potential to enable women to negotiate safer sex and contribute to the reduction of the spread of HIV.


?Women also need to demand tools that they can use to protect themselves against infection. They must call for more accessibility of female condoms, which can be used by women living with HIV who do not wish to fall pregnant and also to protect non-HIV partners. ?


What can be done? Imposing recommendations that promote gender equality as conditionality for grants goes against the tenets on which the Global Fund was created. When it comes to influencing patriarchal systems and gender equalities, it can only give out information and guidelines in proposal application forms on the availability of funds to target women and girls. However, the challenge is for countries themselves to put women’s issues at the centre of their programmes against AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. ?


In the short term, countries can support women providing care in Africa by compensating them for taking on a disproportionate burden of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. This is not too far-fetched. Nutritional and financial support is already being given to the families of orphaned and vulnerable children as a response to the HIV/AIDS crisis. A study done in Zambia and Malawi shows that approximately 70% of the beneficiary households of social cash-transferring schemes seem to be HIV/AIDS-affected, even though the schemes do not use HIV/AIDS as a criterion. Targeting households where women are the care-givers may bring more success than attempting to reconstruct gender roles and sexual independence in the first instance. Changing the mindset is a long-haul problem.

It is critically important that society create an environment for women to be supported in their efforts to demand their basic human rights and freedom from acts of violence. In this effort, the joint contribution of men, institutions and all agencies should be marshalled for maximum results.


Elizabeth N. Mataka is Vice-chair, The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria


The most powerful black man on the planet

America is in need of desperate remedies. It has a bad image worldwide and a collapsing economy. Barack Obama seems to be the only one who can provide a message of change and transformation.?


The new president-elect once told an audience: “The day I am inaugurated, the country will look at itself differently, but perhaps more important, the world will look at America differently.”?


That’s what John McCain and his team tried hard to alter. Republicans waged an aggressive campaign against Obama, linking him to ‘terrorists’ and calling him a socialist. Republicans hoped that fear would make more people vote for them. This was particularly dangerous as it spread the idea that Obama was the ‘enemy within’. ?


Martin Luther King and John Kennedy’s assassinations remind us that the clash between liberalism and conservatism can never be underestimated. South Africa provides an example of this. It has a very progressive constitution. Yet, this did not prevent xenophobic attacks from occurring a few months ago. Dozens of foreigners were killed and many homes and small businesses destroyed.


?To what extent will Obama be able to reform America??


On the race issue, in spite of his bi-racial parentage, Obama seems to stick to the rule that is in effect in America. Anybody with a drop of black blood is considered black. He has not wanted to give the impression that he ‘abandons’ his black heritage, a move that could have cost him some black votes.?


This of course casts some doubt on the whole post-racial celebration. Obama does not fit some people’s expectations of what it means to be black. The Reverend Jesse Jackson appears to think along these lines, as he was caught on television whispering that Obama was “talking down to black people”. Would he have uttered such a statement had Obama been a ‘real’ black man?


?A portion of African-Americans must have felt frustrated when they realised that in spite – or because – of slavery and the civil rights movement, today’s presidential candidate did not come from their ranks.


?If a post-racial era is to see the light of day in the US, the economic situation of the majority of African-Americans will have to improve considerably. At the moment, for each Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, millions are marginalised or in jail. ?


Regrettably, Obama will have to pick up the pieces of the disastrous economic management of the Bush administration. Then, getting disentangled from the war in Iraq will of course be a risky enterprise. However, Obama’s campaign has captured the imagination of the world. By becoming president, he will have a prime place in history books and it will make him the most powerful black man on the planet


Véronique Tadjo is a writer from Côte d’Ivoire and a lecturer in French Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South AfricaBy Véronique Tadjo*

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