On December 1, 2015, World Aids Day, the Stephen Lewis Foundation had its second Ask Her Talks event which gives a voice to African women. Five notable speakers were given a platform to share their thoughts, experiences and how we can help women make changes on the ground level for those dealing with the effects of HIV/AIDS in their lives.
Award-winning actress and Canadian Gospel music legend Jackie Richardson lent her voice as the Host of the evening. “I am an endangered species, but I sing no victim songs I am a woman..I am an activist and I know where my voice belongs,” she sang as the crowd clapped along to the beat.
African women don’t usually get centre stage, but through Ask Her Talks the Stephen Lewis Foundation aims to change that. “For every woman who takes the podium tonight there are thousands more who are leaders of real change in Africa,” Richardson declared. World Aids Day was fitting to bring together a group of women who are working daily at the ground level to better the conditions for women affected by and/or living with HIV/AIDS.
Dorothy Onyango, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Women Fighting AIDS in Kenya (WOFAK), opened the evening discussing the issues surrounding the support needed in many areas for women in Africa dealing with HIV/AIDS. There are many factors in a woman’s life that need to be managed and much of the services involved take not only time, but also a great deal of money. WOFAK is one the few organizations in Kenya that continues to support women in all facets of their lives after being infected with HIV. Over the last several years the number of resources available has declined for women. “Shifts in dollar priorities have resulted in the reduction of funding – Our organizations are suffering now because we have to let go of critical work,” Onyango said. She spoke of a time when women would come to WOFAK back when they had group therapy sessions for HIV positive women. The women took so much strength from it. They had an open environment to share and exchange their feelings and a comforting place to revive their spirit. It was initially funded by donors, but now it’s not viewed as important enough, which led to funding cuts that means dropping programs like this. “It’s not just about going to the hospital and getting medications. There are so many dimensions to be addressed,” she said. Women are dying both physically and emotionally without the full support. If women are empowered and supported that’s when change can happen.
Peres Abeka, is the Co-Founder and Chair person of the Young Women Campaign Against AIDS in Kenya (YWCAA). Her passion and conviction resonated throughout her talk which focused on the need for programs that help women.
“Many young women do not know where to access HIV therapy services or are reluctant to access such services due to the stigma and other reasons. How then, can we remain silent while so many young women and girls are being raped and abused at this minute with persons who do not know their HIV status?” Abeka lifted her hand and declared, “I cry for mama Africa. Today I join the very many voices advocating for that young woman out there who is getting infected with HIV as we speak….one who is suppressed and depressed and has no avenue to be heard.”
Passionate about young and vulnerable women, she spoke about peer pressure, lack of information and how the women and girls are often forced into unprotected sex, resulting in contracting HIV. Young women must be included in the populations that have programs supporting them in Kenya. YWCAA focuses on social networks, creating an environment for individuals and groups which end up playing the role of what families do.
When asked what needs to be done to remove the stigma associated with HIV and AIDS in African communities she said, “We need to understand that people who are living with HIV/AIDS are human beings….we need to send information on fighting stigma through leaflets, radio publications, TV (programs) and inviting key persons in the community including those who are living with HIV/AIDS to come and address the community and come and de-stigmatize the stigma….but for the stigma to be reduced, it’s not an event. It’s a process. It begins with the family. Begins with an individual. You have to accept your status, be ready to talk about it and your family must be ready to support you and understand you.”
One demographic greatly impacted by the AIDS pandemic are elderly women; grandmothers. They are left to take care of the many orphaned children in their communities who have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS. Kidist Belete, is the Founder and Executive Director of Developing Families Together (DFT) in Ethiopia and she is passionate about helping families affected by the disease. Grandmothers are a big support system particularly when they are forced to care for their orphaned grandchildren. These women, who are supposed to be relaxing in their golden retirement years are instead finding themselves going back to work and parenting all over again. Many of these elderly women are burdened with using their old age support to now take care of grandchildren.
This is a phenomenon seen in many countries where HIV/AIDS has ravaged through communities. DFT aims to improve the lives of families particularly with a focus on women and children. Belete, said she has become more sensitive to the plight of women who are facing these circumstances; especially now that she too is a grandmother. DFT provides care and support to communities and strives towards reducing poverty and HIV/AIDS prevention. Belete understands what a great impact her organization has made, but also knows some people can easily forget that the problem still exists. “I feel strongly that even with all our gains, it’s critical to prevent complacency, so that we don’t lose the ground that we have conquered from the AIDS pandemic.” Belete said. This statement indeed is reflective of what’s happened around the world because of people living longer and HIV diagnoses no longer being seen as a death sentence. Too many people have forgotten how deadly the illness still is and what an impact it can have on families and communities. As Belete said, preventing complacency is critical.
The work that caregivers, activists, family and support workers do is often taken for granted. Hope Chigudu, Co-Founder of the Zimbabwe Women’s Resource Centre and Network, challenged the audience to think about the fact well-being is just as important as anything in this fight. The way forward is to include self care and well being in proposals for funding. She said that well-being is what allows us to be resilient. “It’s not just about resting and exercising. It’s about creating organizational systems, policies and structures that are dynamic and energizing,” Chigudu said frankly. “Well being is about developing our capacity it’s about realizing that every moment matters and every person matters. That is the core of our work. Everything we do matters because we are creating the future.” she continued.
Funding programs rarely include any assistance for the support workers and it’s about time this is included when budgets are created because if the health of those who are providing assistance is not at 100 percent, how can we expect them to do their best in helping others? She said that well-being is about finding a way for activists to keep doing the work they do. All this while understanding they often ask themselves if they have enough energy inside to take care of themselves and of others. This is critical because anyone who is overworked, drained and tired is not going to perform their best and that means the care for the sick won’t be what it should be. This is why allocating funding for them is important too.
Women are the ones who are usually on the front lines of everything in Africa, yet they get the least amount of credit for their work. Vuyiseka Dubula, Former General Secretary of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) in South Africa, said that nothing about us women can be done without us. Women are often being spoken to, and not included. “Leadership on HIV policies has largely been the same old men, speaking on our behalf and we need to create spaces to be heard. We need to deliberately create the spaces for young women to be heard, and also take up leadership. It becomes a struggle between the old and new roles of women,” Dubula shared with me after the event.
Her passion represented a strong voice for those young women living with HIV. She spoke openly about the fact she never expected that one day she too would be living with the disease with so much stigma attached to it. “My HIV diagnosis in 2001 changed my world view and it changed my life. At the age of 22, my dreams and future became bleak,” she said. “I never expected to be told I have HIV and that the size of my pockets would determine my life.” The total income of her family was not enough to buy treatment as is the case for many who are poverty stricken and facing the reality that they can’t afford the medications needed to stay alive. People were often left to, as she said, “Just go home to die.” It took TAC being active in non-violent public advocacy strategies which put the power into the hands of the people. They built alliances, engaged in protests and challenged the state’s refusal to include anti-retrovirals in the public health policy. They also challenged the multi national drug companies in reducing the cost so that there can be access for all those affected, not just the rich populations. As a result policies changed and the drugs became more accessible.
“I am among the 5 million people alive today because poor people refuse to die without a fight,” Dubula said. She spoke passionately about how the deaths of poor people can no longer go unnoticed and that access to anti-retrovirals once seen as a privelage should be a right. Activism has changed the direction of the response to AIDS in South Africa.
In 2015 the plight against HIV/AIDS is far from over. The continued education, prevention strategies and support for those living with the disease is important going forward. Eliminating the stigma and providing strong support systems is the way of the future in the continued efforts to battle on the frontlines of the global AIDS epidemic.
Stephen Lewis Foundation (Canada)
Treatment Action Campaign (South Africa)
Developing Families Together (Ethiopia)
Women Fighting AIDS in Kenya (Kenya)