Theo Sowa speaks at the 2012 Hope Rising! concert in support of the Stephen Lewis Foundation (Photo by Kristina Laukkanen/SLF)

Women at the heart of the response to HIV/AIDS


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Theo Sowa is Executive Director of the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF) and a member of the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s African Advisory Board. She recently reflected on AWDF’s ten-year anniversary, in conversation with Leah Teklemariam, SLF’s Director of Programmes.

SLF: In the past ten years, what changes have you seen in the way the AIDS pandemic is unfolding on the continent?

Theo Sowa: There’s a lot that’s changed about the pandemic. I think there’s a lot more to be hopeful about in the way in which HIV/AIDS is being dealt with. It took people a long time to recognize that, even when the pandemic was at its worst and growing on the continent, women were actually pushing new ways of coping, new ways of dealing.

Ten years down the road, we’ve seen real advances in medical responses, social responses, economic responses—and women have been at the heart of that change. They were at the heart of that response in 2003 and remain so today. Sadly, even though women do so much in terms of the response to AIDS, there just isn’t the same level of resources going to women’s organizations.

Tell us about the context in which the AWDF came into existence.

The AWDF sprang from the vision of three African women who had worked for years in the development sector as social activists and feminists, and observed a disconnect between the rhetoric around “funding women” and the way in which resources were invested. The AWDF came into existence to find the resources to support women’s organizations to make the changes that were needed.

The moment at which the AWDF was established and growing was one of the worst times in terms of the impact of HIV/AIDS on women. We were getting a lot of information around the physical impacts on women, about the vulnerability of women and girls—not just because of physical factors, but because of social factors that people hadn’t been taking into account. We knew that, in order to change things, women’s organizations really did need to be resourced. Over the last decade, that emphasis and investment in women’s organizations has shown itself to be truly justified.

African women were at the heart of the response to HIV/AIDS in 2003. They remain so today.

How has the AWDF’s work changed over the past ten years?

The image, the narrative, around African women has been so negative for so long that it stops people from listening. If people think you’re a victim, they’re not going to want to hear what you have to say. So the AWDF very early on learned that we needed to work with people so that African women’s stories could be heard. So that when people saw African women, they didn’t see women who were victims, but they saw women who had engendered change for generations. Working with women to tell their stories, generating new information, and making sure that information was shared—doing some very practical work to raise the profile of African women—is all work that the AWDF has done over the years.

I think the AWDF has become more sophisticated and strategic in its approach—recognizing the importance of working with lots of different groups of women. The AWDF has always believed in women’s leadership, but women’s leadership is often defined as political leadership—it’s the presidents or the ministers, politics with a capital “P.”

Photo by Alexis MacDonald/SLF

A woman participates in a discussion at HOFE in Malawi.

One of the things the AWDF has learned is that you have to work with all women across a wide spectrum and look at political participation more broadly. It’s not about having workshops to say to women, “This is how you get into your political party’s leadership.” It’s not about saying to women, “This is how you campaign.” It is about working with women to make sure they have a stake in the society they’re trying to change. Part of that is about economic security. If women are worrying about how they’re going to feed their children, they’re absolutely not going to be focusing on participating politically. But when women have increased economic security, we see changes and improvements in women’s and girls’ health and education, for instance, and people start asking questions: “If I’m paying school fees, tell me why the local authority isn’t providing the necessary school books?” Suddenly you see women getting involved in local politics. We need women’s participation at all of those levels—local, national, and international.

What significant issues do you see in the advancement of African women and their grassroots organizations?

There are still a lot of organizations that talk about “gender” rather than women’s rights because it makes that space safe and depoliticizes the work that needs to happen. This often leads to organizations speaking for African women rather than ensuring African women speak for themselves to put forward their own solutions.

I know African women will not do this on their own; none of us work in isolation. It’s ludicrous to have a situation where it is widely acknowledged that women are at the heart of the response—to HIV and AIDS, in social justice and economic growth—and yet continue to deny women the space for their own voices to be heard, precisely in those situations and spaces where decisions are made. Unfortunately, that continues to happen.

As we look at the pandemic being tamed, if you can call it that, there’s a real opportunity for organizations that are ready to put money into women’s rights. That’s going to be really, really important. It took too long before women’s rights issues were being funded as core to the response to HIV and AIDS. The Stephen Lewis Foundation and the AWDF were at the forefront of that, and others are now coming on board. But I think that same imagination, that same innovation, the same listening to women to find out what the priorities are, must happen much more broadly.

What worries me is the funding for women’s rights is shrinking. People have a tendency to think that funding is in place because a lot of people talk about women’s issues. But they’re not talking about women’s rights; they’re talking about approaches that often utilize women and girls, but are not actually about promoting and implementing their rights.

Photo by Alexis MacDonald/SLF

At ZAPHA+ in Tanzania, an aspiring journalist interviews another young woman at a support group for youth affected by HIV/AIDS.

What excites me is that African women are amazing—resilient, innovative, and passionate about change. Whether you’re in a little village in northern Rwanda, or in Accra, Ghana, or on the coast in Zanzibar, you keep meeting these amazing women who, in the face of incredible challenges, are really promoting change.


Woman at PEFO in Uganda. (Photo by Alexis MacDonald/SLF)

“To all of this work, focused on our implacable opposition to the AIDS virus, Canadians have contributed over $87 million. So here’s the challenge: surely we should aim for $100 million to round out the decade. It means giving more. It means digging deeper. It means further sacrifice—but it also means unrelenting compassion, decency, generosity and love. And it’s truly needed.” —Stephen Lewis

Please donate now.

(Financial data current as of March 31, 2013.)


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