Feature - Women defy taboo to fight HIV
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HORN OF AFRICA: Feature - Women defy taboo to fight HIV

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]


Women's Anti-Aids Coalition, Ethiopia

ADDIS ABABA, 19 June (PLUSNEWS) - It's often said of Ethiopia that the country has more than its fair share of taboos. In the profoundly conservative society, steeped in ancient history, deepseated traditions abound. But on Wednesday, some of Ethiopia's most powerful and respected women united to challenge one of the biggest taboos of all.

The subject, sex, does not normally feature in public discussion, let alone in day-to-day conversation. Yet at the launch in Addis Ababa of the National Coalition of Women Against HIV/AIDS, each woman lined up to use the word 'tsota' – 'sex' in the Amharic language - over and over again. It is a sign of how much times are changing in Ethiopia, a vast country with a population of some 67 million – the third most populous state in Africa.

Struggling to cope with severe food shortages, Ethiopia is also having to face up to another battle - the HIV/AIDS pandemic. According to the World Bank, the HIV/AIDS crisis is now the greatest threat to the country. It is weakening the economy and the government's much-heralded anti-poverty blueprint, as the most productive age group succumbs to the disease. Schools are being left without teachers, and in a nation desperately trying to feed itself, rural production levels are under threat.

The National Coalition for Women Against HIV/AIDS aims to reverse all this, primarily by talking about, and being seen to talk about sex. "We know that unless we are very transparent about sex, then AIDS will not be eradicated," Education Minister Genet Zewde, a leading member of the coalition, said. "We will not shy away from talking about sexual intercourse and we will address it in a manner that won't offend our society, we will be very tactful."

In Ethiopia, Genet's simple-sounding and inoffensive statement is the verbal equivalent of a small earthquake. In a country where stigma and silence are real killers, the words, especially spoken by a woman, carry all the more weight. International aid organisations and diplomats are already talking of a "breakthrough", and are hailing the coalition's initiative.

Female heads of diplomatic missions in Ethiopia, which include Canada, Germany, Ireland and the US, have sent strong messages of support. So too has Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, whose wife, Azeb Mesfin, is a founding coalition member. Azeb said that mobilising the population, enabling communities to speak out, was perhaps the most effective weapon in tackling the epidemic.

"We have to give them a voice," said Azeb, one of six of Ethiopia's most prominent women and key decision-makers who attended the launch.

Entrenched poverty, inequality between men and women, and patriarchal and cultural sensitivities perhaps prevented the coalition from being formed earlier, the women say. Genet, who has held the post of education minister since 1992, admits they should have spoken out sooner. But she says it is not too late.

"There is a saying that the right time to plant a tree was yesterday. With hindsight we should have started it a long time ago," she said.

Netsannet Asfew, the State Minister for Information, says that women's associations represent enormous potential for the coalition. With 400,000 members in Tigray Regional State in northern Ethiopia, and many more in Amhara, Oromiya and in the south, the coalition is in effect looking to create a mum's army to carry the message forward. Women, as most statistics show, bear the brunt of the pandemic in Ethiopia.

"We believe we can convince people to change their behaviour and to know the dangers," said Netsannet, another founding member. But she says working within the culture is key. She cites the case of a friend who divorced his wife after finding birth control pills in her bag as an example of the social barriers that must be overcome. She says families must start talking about AIDS, just as she did with her own daughter more than decade ago.

"One of our greatest challenges will be to teach people to be open, honest and not shy about what in your language is called the facts of life," she said. But she acknowledges that families in rural areas who do not have exposure to science or biology will find it hard.

The idea for a coalition came to fruition through the Federal Women's Affairs Office, headed by Gifti Abasiya, and a core group of women ministers. They have a six-point mission statement. The first point, providing political leadership to champion HIV/AIDS issues, already appears to have been achieved. Another key element is tackling the inequalities between men and women which they say further fuels the epidemic.

"If the women of Ethiopia are not involved in facing the challenge of HIV/AIDS today, then we cannot win. But if they play their full part, then we cannot fail," the coalition says in its mission statement.

A core group made up of senior government and other prominent figures will also work on issues surrounding HIV/AIDS through advocacy and women's leadership. Elections to the core group are to be held in the near future.

The UN Development Programme has supplied funds totalling US $200,000 to the programme, although the women in the coalition say that money is not a hurdle. In fact, Ethiopia has secured more than $150 million to fight AIDS, and serious question marks have hung over the country's capacity to spend it. As the women point out, there is already widespread awareness about HIV/AIDS within Ethiopia but almost no changes in people's behaviour, and this is the hurdle they have vowed to overcome.

Dr Mula Ketsela, the State Minister for Economic Development, says systems are now in place to finance specific anti-AIDS projects. More importantly, she says, the coalition can target the grass-roots levels, where the anti-AIDS message needs to be heard most, and where people must start to change their sexual behaviour patterns.

Even so, stumbling blocks remain to what some have described as a "landmark" movement. For example, HIV/AIDS testing, which is critical in combating the virus, is still a moot point among almost all politicians or high profile figures in the country. One senior ranking minister in the coalition, who quietly confessed that she has not yet been tested, admits to feeling terrified at being "outed", labelled a hypocrite and forced to have one.

"One step at a time, please," she told PlusNews.

Observers say that although cynics may try and dismiss the coalition as another talking shop in an already overcrowded market place, they believe the women will represent a formidable force in the fight against HIV/AIDS.




PlusNews is produced under the banner of RHAIN, the Southern African Regional HIV/AIDS Information Network. RHAIN's members currently include:


  • IRIN

  • Inter Press Service (IPS)



  • Health Systems Trust

  • Health & Development

  • GTZ/Afronets

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