- Almost every family is affected by HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa, and the disease's immense burden on the household mostly falls on women. Now, women from all over the region have met to share their experiences of living with HIV/AIDS.
Women living with HIV/AIDS, home-based care-givers and women's NGOs from Lesotho, Namibia, Swaziland, South Africa and Zimbabwe yesterday concluded a meeting in Cape Town, South Africa, at which they voiced their needs and concerns as women infected and affected by the disease.
Despite the immense burden they shoulder, in a region where the majority of people infected are women, they did not ask for much, requesting only that their basic needs be met - clean tap water, sanitation facilities, transport, a small stipend, and shared domestic responsibilities with the men in their communities.
The Cape Town Consultation, organised by the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) in partnership with the Positive Women's Network, and the Youth Against AIDS Network, aimed to give voice to women's individual and collective experience with HIV/AIDS, and ensure that these concerns are raised at the governmental level, so that they could be included in prevention, treatment and support programs.
Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of UNIFEM, listened to participants describing an "endemic levels of exhaustion, grief and depression" amongst care-givers, Ms Heyzer recalls.
They told of women who are expected to cook and clean for their families, wash soiled laundry, bathe and feed the sick, take ill family members to hospital, wait in queues to get medicine for those who are too weak to do it on their own, collect firewood and traditional herbs, and, on top of this, are still expected to tend to children, farm the land, bring in money, and participate in community activities.
Elibeth Mndzebele, a Swazi participant who heads a team of community-based health workers explained, "We were trained as nurses to take care of sick people and make them better. Instead we are now discharging people into the morgue. It is very depressing."
Participants also gave examples of the challenges faced by positive women, who often have to endure sexual harassment and abuse when they are at their most vulnerable - sick and in bed.
A unanimous plea was for more assistance from men. "The potential of men to heal and care for their family members is yet untapped. Women need their help. Domestic work can no longer be only women's work. We need men to help clean, cook and care. The load is too heavy not to share," said Sisonke Msimang, regional coordinator of the Youth Against AIDS Network.
UNIFEM's Ms Heyzer promised to ensure that these concerns were submitted to the highest level of government decision-making. "Without putting women at the centre of the fight against HIV/AIDS, the battle to control the disease will fail. Women have the experience, skills and expertise needed to shape AIDS prevention and treatment programs in ways that will address women's physical and cultural susceptibility to the disease. Attention to their ideas and insights are long overdue," she said.
Meanwhile, the HIV/AIDS pandemic goes on spreading in Southern Africa, where approximately one third of the population is HIV infected. In Lesotho, Namibia, Swaziland, South Africa and Zimbabwe, the disease remains a powerful stigma and most infected will not reveal their HIV status, many even not to their wives/husbands.
In these circumstances of silence, traditional practices depriving women of the control of their sexuality remain intact. As the silence goes on, men seem to find no reasons for changing their attitudes.
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