Ask her: Women experts on the frontlines of the AIDS pandemic in Africa

Grassroots

Fall 2012

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In this issue:
Message from Stephen Lewis
Feature article: “Ask her”
Grandmothers Campaign
In your community
Dare Campaign
Financial overview


Stephen Lewis (photo by Eric O’Donnell)

A Message from Stephen Lewis

Oddly enough, these few words are prompted by the fascinating feature article that adorns the pages of this issue of Grassroots. I get to see the layout and content of each issue a little in advance, and in this instance I was immensely taken with the impressive interviews with four grassroots, frontline women commenting on the role of women in the pandemic. If that’s called tooting our own horn, then tooting I am.

The comments and observations in the article reaffirm, in my mind, one of the great tragedies of the AIDS pandemic: we’ve made notable progress in a whole host of areas, but we’ve failed lamentably to respond adequately to women.

This is especially true of Africa. Of the more than 23 million people infected, 60% are women. And in the age range fifteen to twenty-four, fully 75% are women and girls. Yet, in the annals of the international response, women are unconscionably neglected.

Let me provide four brief examples.

First, the prevention of “vertical transmission”; that is, the prevention of transmission of the virus from mother to child during pregnancy, birth and breast-feeding. Up until this last year, the entire focus has been on saving the infant – with the HIV-positive mother as a mere addendum. The new clarion call is titled “The Elimination of Pediatric AIDS and Keeping Mothers Alive.” The “keeping mothers alive” bit was an eleventh-hour addition.

Second, the crisis of adolescent girls. Not only are they largely excluded from secondary school because they can’t afford the school fees, and therefore don’t get a chance to learn from life skill classes, but they have virtually no access to sexual and reproductive health care. It’s a true scandal.

Third, the contagion of sexual violence. It can be seen from the four women interviewed in this issue of Grassroots that sexual violence and rape exact an ever-greater toll. The brutality of the rapes transmits the virus: we don’t have exact figures, but the transmission is everywhere noted. And we’re not talking only of rape in conflict settings like the Congo; we’re talking of politically-orchestrated rape, marital rape, intimate partner rape, gang rape… the brazen and terrifying exercise of male power: the ultimate example of gender inequality.

Finally, it’s worth recounting an incident that occurred at the International AIDS Conference held in Washington in July. There was a major session to look at the future disposition of funds to combat HIV/AIDS. There were eleven auspicious speakers: eleven men. It just never ends. The arrogant role of patriarchy dooms the lives of women.

What makes it all so painful is the way women sustain entire communities and countries, grandmothers looking after orphans, women doing home-based care, tilling the fields, tending to the family, generally being the life-blood of the society.

It’s an insufferable truth that after thirty years of the pandemic, women are still marginalized, with catastrophic results. In our own small way, the Foundation is determined to reverse that ugly reality.

Stephen Lewis
Chair of the Board
Stephen Lewis Foundation


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