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Women wait to be heard - World AIDS Day
Saturday 25 December 2004
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AFRICA: Women wait to be heard - World AIDS Day

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


This year's World AIDS Day campaign focuses on women and girls

JOHANNESBURG, 1 December (PLUSNEWS) - African women don't need statistics to tell them that they are the face of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. They are forced to confront this reality in all aspects of their lives - the bedroom, the classroom and the workplace.

This year's World AIDS Day campaign focuses on women and girls by asking: 'Have you heard me today?' But, as the latest figures from this year's AIDS Epidemic Update illustrate, the number of women living with the virus has risen in each region of the world.

Clearly, being heard is not enough - more is needed.

In Southern Africa, the laws guaranteeing equality are in place, the anti-AIDS information is out there, the girls are going to school in ever greater numbers, and yet, young women are becoming infected with HIV at an alarming rate.

More than 75 percent of HIV-positive youth aged 15 to 24 in South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe are female. HIV prevalence rates among pregnant women average 25 percent in the region, but remain below 15 percent in East Africa and under 10 percent in West Africa.

"Many of our messages have failed to take into account the specific needs of women and girls, and the often difficult reality of their daily lives," said Festo Kavishe, Zimbabwe's acting UN Resident Coordinator at the launch of 'Facing the Future Together', a report by the UN Secretary-General's Task Force on Women, Girls and HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa.

The reality is that poverty drives girls and women into exchanging sex for goods, gifts, food, bus fare or school fees. As a result, young women tend to have sexual partners who are five to 10 years older, and more likely to be infected with HIV. A study in Zambia found that 18 percent of girls tested HIV-positive within a year of losing their virginity.

Keeping girls in schools helps them delay having sex, but only if they are not having forced sex with teachers or other students. The School of Public Health at South Africa's University of the Western Cape (UWC) has embarked on a project focused on identifying and challenging teachers' own knowledge of, and attitudes to, gender and sexual violence, with a view to including these issues in the primary school curriculum.

The training programme was piloted in six primary schools in the township of Mitchell's Plain in Cape Town, and has since been expanded into a training module for student teachers.

"We had anticipated that teachers would be change-agents, but other research has shown that they are sometimes the perpetrators of the very acts we are trying to address," Abigail Dreyer, project manager at the UWC School of Public Health, told IRIN.

Although many African countries have signed international agreements and passed laws guaranteeing equality among men and women, many obstacles stand in the way of implementation - women and girls are often dispossessed of land, home and property following the death of a husband, partner or parent.

Fear of violent reprisals and accusations of being a traitor to tradition and culture have stopped many women from complaining. Those who seek redress often face sluggish bureaucracies, official indifference, complex land administration systems and insensitive officials.

Violence against women and girls is also a driving factor in the high infection rates. In Soweto, a township outside Johannesburg, South Africa, Sgidi Sibego coordinates Men As Partners (MAP) workshops for Hope Worldwide, one of an international network of local partner organisations of the NGO, EngenderHealth.

"My mum was abused but I never wanted to be like my father. Growing up in a township I experienced a lot of domestic violence. In my neighbourhood you'd hear screams but you'd do nothing about it - it was almost normal - but that was not right," Sibego explained.


There is now a growing realisation that the ABC strategy: 'abstain, be faithful and use a condom', does not fit the specific needs of women and girls. "The messages have been missing the mark," the UN Secretary-General's Task Force on Women, Girls and HIV/AIDS report said. One reason is the "not only widespread, but widely accepted and endorsed" prevalence of rape and sexual violence.

Marriage does not always provide the answer. In the context of men who grow up believing masculinity means having plenty of sexual partners, being faithful to your husband does not prevent infection. Using a condom requires a willing partner and, in a region where one in five women has been physically abused, fear can undermine insistence on protection.

So far, AIDS awareness campaigns focusing only on women have proved redundant, as women are unable to negotiate safe sex with their male partners. Men need to listen to the statistics and, more importantly, hear the voices of women and girls.

"It's about time that men recognise that AIDS in Africa is a heterosexually transmitted disease, and it is usually the man who is the one who infects his partner. It is important not to blame, but to understand; it is important not to condemn, but to effect change in attitude and behaviour," said Sempiwe Hlope, founder of the women's HIV/AIDS support organisation, Swazis for Positive Living.

Research conducted in preparation for designing the MAP project revealed that 58 percent of the 2,000 South African men surveyed had never used a condom, despite 35 percent having previously had a sexually transmitted disease. More than half blamed women for provoking rape by the way they dressed or walking alone after dark, and 22 percent approved of a man beating his partner.

Dean Peacock, who manages the MAP programme, noted that these statistics were by no means unique to South Africa. "This is not an issue that's culturally or racially specific," he told PlusNews. "I've done this work in Latin and North America and you find the same issues there."


In Malawi the UN Population Fund and the youth ministry are targeting girls as part of the Southern African Youth (SAY) initiative, funded by the United Nations Foundation, which sponsors youth projects in seven AIDS-affected countries in southern Africa.

Under the SAY project, girls are provided with vocational training in sewing, knitting, electronics and computers, as well as support in forming clubs. Youth-friendly clinics offering family planning and counselling are also part of the project.

Young women, like 20 year old Maureen Kumwenda, are fighting against the country's patriarchal and conservative society to show that "a girl can do something - now we can be more assertive; now people will take us seriously and realise that 'no' means 'no!'"

On Friday 3 December, the international NGO, ActionAid International (AAI) will be launching the "Mutapola" Campaign, giving the epidemic a female image.

"Mutapola is the campaign voice of a woman living with the AIDS pandemic in Southern Africa. She has many faces: young and old; affected or infected; urban and rural; married or single. There are many Mutapolas, with different experiences, and different realities. But while they might all appear different, one thing unites them, and that is why they might as well have one name - they are all women," the AAI Southern Africa Partnership Programme director, Caroline Sande-Mukulira, told PlusNews.

The Mutapola campaign, to be launched in South Africa's capital, Pretoria, will focus on the need to improve women's livelihoods to make it easier to access and gain control of nutritious food to maintain themselves and their families in good health.

While there was no shortage of "paper commitments" to the rights of women in Southern Africa, countries were lacking in implementation, said Everjoice Win, the AAI international gender coordinator.

"Half the time Mutapola does not even know there is a law or policy that says she has entitlements. The invisible hand of age-old traditions and customs keeps pushing her down as she fights to move up."


Recent AFRICA Reports
IRIN PlusNews Weekly Issue 213, 24 December 2004,  24/Dec/04
NGO launches countrywide monitoring of ARV rollout,  23/Dec/04
Hope for those co-infected with HIV/AIDS and TB,  21/Dec/04
Treatment criteria - deciding who gets to live ,  17/Dec/04
Poverty, stigma and ignorance blights ART,  17/Dec/04
The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria
Youth against AIDS
Making A difference for Children Affected by AIDS
Children and AIDS International Non-Government Organisation Network (CAINN)

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