A Cry from the Heart for International Women's Day

 

I have found it tremendously difficult to write a letter to you, our supporters, in a moment that feels so fraught, so precarious. We are surrounded internationally by countries engaging in increasing isolationism, nationalism, and protectionism. There are so many conflicts unfolding, both in North America and beyond, stunningly bizarre and draconian rumblings, and it is clear that women’s and girls' rights are under attack from Russia to the U.S.  
 
Equal to the alarm is the surge of hope and pride we feel at the unprecedented response of women mobilizing around the world in answer to this unfolding crisis. Whether it’s the One Billion Rising, Malala’s tireless advocacy or the women’s march in Washington, it’s no accident that women are at the forefront. We know that, when crisis hits, it’s women’s bodies and women’s rights that are the first to be targeted. And women and girls living in environments of oppression, want and inequality are the ones who pay the greatest price. Often it is their lives.
 
Consider this horrifying statistic:
 
While the global death rate from AIDS has gone down over the past 10 years, it has increased by 50 per cent for adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa. Girls are up to five times more likely to be infected than boys their own age. And 7,500 girls and young women between the ages of 15 and 25 are being infected every week.
 
I can’t get it out of my mind.
 
Make no mistake, this is not a cultural issue. This is not a moral failing on the part of young African girls. A statistic like this is a direct result of the fundamental lack of protection of girls' rights in the face of HIV and AIDS – their right to education, health, and protection from violence. It is also a direct result of the dramatic cuts in international funding for African grassroots organizations.
 
These groups are the champions of women’s and girls' rights in communities hit hardest by AIDS. Their expertise is now recognized globally. In fact, it’s become one of the mantras of academics, doctors and AIDS philanthropists. They all say the same thing: there needs to be more funding directed to grassroots initiatives and a clear recognition of gender inequality. Those are the key factors in beating back the ravages of the pandemic and building community resilience.
 
Would that the mantra matched the deed. Meaningful funding for community-based organizations is still elusive, and grassroots organizations are under financial siege. That’s why your support, now and in the future, is so urgent and indispensable, and so profoundly appreciated.
 
When I think about a generation of young girls and women being newly infected, I am heartbroken and frustrated by the failure of the international community to move heaven and earth to ensure that community-led organizations are properly funded. Who knows how to reach these girls and talk to their grandmothers and aunties? It’s only the leaders who spring from the community who can ensure that girls stay in school, get educated about prevention, get tested for HIV, are supported to take ARVs and stay on them for life. Who else knows why adolescent girls are reluctant to be tested? Who else understands that the girls must learn how to insist on protection? Their families and community workers at the frontlines are working hard to understand the obstacles and overcome them. It takes wide-ranging efforts: peer-to-peer support groups, workshops for caregivers on talking to their teenage granddaughters about sex and sexuality, project workers who escort girls to and from school so that they are safe from sexual predation, and street theatre to engage youth and raise awareness about HIV&AIDS. There is no end to the ingenuity and determination of these local grassroots organizations and the dedication of their staff to reaching girls, young women and the grandmothers who are raising them.  
 
The AIDS pandemic has brought into high relief the fact that being a girl or a young woman – being female – is the vector of danger. The local leaders understand that this is an issue of human rights – to education, to bodily integrity, to self-determination, to access to health care, and girls and young women are at the epicentre. 
 
I started this letter talking about the attack on women’s rights – and women are mobilizing around the globe. These girls and young women are in huts and homes across sub-Saharan Africa, and we do not hear them. But this is my cri de coeur – every day of every week counts now. I feel the days differently in this moment, knowing that as each Sunday approaches, another 7,500 girls have been infected, and their grassroots organizations are desperately trying to stem the tide, but, inexplicably, without an international alarm bell, without the dramatic urgency of ambulances and disaster responses, without marches and movements to secure their rights. I hear them, though, and I hope you do too.


Ilana Landsberg-Lewis
Executive Director and Co-Founder
Stephen Lewis Foundation

 

 

 

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