Dying in silence

Wednesday 1 October 2003, by Judy REBICK

Millions of people, the majority women, are dying needlessly of AIDS. Racism and sexism are two major factors in these deaths. So why aren’t women around the world up in arms?

"We were visiting an unbelievably poor unplanned settlement outside of Lusaka, Zambia" Stephen Lewis told me upon his return last August from a trip to Southern Africa. "As usually happens in such places, about 700-800 people gathered to welcome us and were sitting in front of me. I asked how many were grandmothers and almost every hand went up. Then I asked," he continued, "How many were taking care of young children and all those hands went up again. I looked more carefully at the group and in the front row were a handful of women in the 20’s and 30’s with little children on their lap. The rest were grandmothers. It was almost surreal. Suddenly everything I know about the impact of AIDS on women in Africa was graphically visible. A generation is being wiped out."

The statistics are astounding. According to the UN, of 26 million infected adults in Sub-Saharan Africa, women now constitute 58%. Among young women it is even worse. Two-thirds of young people age 15 to 24 living with AIDS are women.

"Put in the context that more than half the new infections now occur among young people---6,000 per day---and you can see what is in prospect for Africa. I’m not a statistician, but if the present reality is 58% and the future reality is 67%, we’re talking about the unthinkable…a looming cataclysm for the women of Africa," Lewis says.

"It is women’s inequality that is fueling the AIDS epidemic in Africa and only a crash course in empowering women will stop it," he adds.

Why are women more vulnerable to AIDS? According to UNIFEM, the UN agency on the status of women, women are often powerless to control their sexual relationships or to negotiate safe sex. In some African countries, men are having sex with younger and younger women, believing that sex with a virgin will protect them from AIDS. Sexual violence including rape as a weapon of war is also a factor. And women are more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS than men or boys because they are biologically more susceptible to sexually transmitted infections.

The AIDS pandemic is also contributing to women’s inequality. The burden of care both for the sick and for the orphans left behind falls on women.

Jo-anne Sandler, Deputy Executive Director of UNIFEM explains, "Pilot studies in Zimbabwe, for example, had shown that girls were being pulled out of school to care for the sick and dying. Also, grandmothers were increasingly taking on the burdens of care. A gender perspective showed a mostly invisible and largely unaccounted for "care economy" in the parts of the world most plagued by HIV/AIDS. Indeed, older women and young girls were sacrificing their lives to fill the care gap left by governments and the global community "

And despite recent good news that most African governments are starting to act to combat the HIV/AIDS pandemic after years of denial, that gap is still enormous.

Lewis points out of around 30 million people living with HIV/AIDS in Africa, about 6 million people medically qualify for treatment. Shockingly only 70,000 are receiving it. In North America, 100% of those with HIV/AIDS receive treatment. With more resources all those suffering in Africa could be treated, yet resources are slow in coming.

Despite all kinds of announcements of good intentions, funding for AIDS treatment in Africa is falling far short of need. Even the $15 billion announced recently by President George Bush has so many strings attached that it won’t help as much as it could.

In an episode on West Wing last year President Bartlet asks "Why is a Kuhndunese (fictional African country) life worth less to me than an American life?"

"I don’t know, Sir, but it is, "answers his speech writer.

And so we must ask ourselves the same question. Think of the hysteria around SARS, As of last summer around 800 people world wide died of SARS. In 1999, 2.1 million people died of AIDS and 83 percent of them lived in Africa.

It took a massive struggle by the gay community to get governments to take AIDS seriously in North America. No doubt homophobia played a big role in that delay. When it comes to pitiful international action against AIDS in Africa, no doubt racism is a major factor.

And why don’t the anti-globalization movement and the international women’s movement not put AIDS in Africa at the top of their agenda? The high cost of drugs due to patent protection afforded multi-national drug companies by international trade deals is a significant part of the problem. The equality of women is a significant part of the solution.

There is nothing worse than people suffering needlessly. The AIDS pandemic in Africa can be stopped. All it would take is the political will. Now that the African governments have finally started to mobilize their resources to stop the pandemic, it is time for the entire world to pitch in.

The author is editor of [rabble.ca-http://www.rabble.ca]

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