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Welcome to South Africa: A Word from WISE

By Angela Garcia

October 2000

Flying early morning into Durban, South Africa, one can peer out of the airplane window and see a rose colored landscape meet the deep blue of the Indian Ocean. The two colors do not blend, but touch. White, cresting waves brush and collide onto shore, forging a middle ground between land and sea. It is a beautiful sight, reminiscent of a sunny, southern Californian beach. From above, one feels as though they are going on holiday. There are no signs of catastrophe from the airplane window. But, on land, the AIDS epidemic in South Africa is clearly catastrophic.


Statistics Do Not Bleed

With about 20% of the population living with HIV, South Africa is among the countries with the largest number of HIV-positive people in the world. In some areas of the country, one in three women are positive. It is estimated that in just five years, one in two teenagers under the age of fifteen will be living with HIV.

But statistics do not bleed. It's easy for numbers to loose their meaning. Yet, once you leave the air and touch land in South Africa, you begin to understand the meaning of numbers. You learn about the lives these numbers try to (but can never) represent.

The numbers are families -- not just one son, daughter or parent, but entire families, many spanning two and three generations. As one woman plainly remarked, "I am a woman and a mother living with HIV. I am also an orphan, as my own children will be. What will happen to the children of women in Africa when we die? Who will care for who them? Who will care for us, for we are also children?"


Women in the Epidemic

In South Africa, as in many places around the world, women are particularly affected by HIV. Low social status, poverty, violence, silence and women's very own bodies make them vulnerable. Indeed, many argue that HIV/AIDS has highlighted gender inequality more profoundly than any other issue or disease in human history.

For most positive women in South Africa, there is little to no hope for treatment. Money and politics are among the deciding factors -- and most South African women simply lack financial and political power. Of course, many South African men lack such power too. But for families with limited access to medications who are faced with the decision of who to treat or who to save, the answer is usually the father, the husband or the son.

Similarly, in poor settings where access to treatment is scarce, advances in preventing mother-to-child transmission benefit the child, not the woman caring for the child. And so the catastrophic cycle continues -- until we all decide to break it together.


Breaking the Silence

The International AIDS Conference lasted six days. Its theme was appropriately called Breaking the Silence. In each conference session, no matter what its focus, attendees broke the silence about issues of access -- who gets treatment for HIV, who does not and why.

The most profound assessment of this dilemma was made by HIV-positive, South African Judge Edwin Cameron who declared, "Amidst the poverty of Africa, I stand before you because I am able to purchase health and vigor. I am here because I can pay for life itself."

Only five blocks away, in a dark room in a Durban theatre, local HIV-positive women who could not afford to attend the conference gathered each day at a satellite meeting called Ununbano LoMama (Women Working Together). Against the threat of violence and abandonment, they also broke the silence that had enfolded their lives.

They told stories about burying countless children and never understanding why. They expressed rage at their male partners and the political system, especially during apartheid, for years of abuse and neglect. And they described the fear they felt about their own impending deaths.

Slowly, the women broke down the myths that lead to their own rejection from hospitals, clinics and homes. They asked hard questions about HIV: what is it, how to stop it and why it kills. But the hardest question they asked that still resonates in the minds of all who attended those long and difficult sessions was: will the government, media, activists and scientists who gathered in Durban from around the world continue to listen and support the African woman who bravely broke the silence?

Will we?

Angela Garcia is Program Manager, Project WISE/Women's Treatment Information and Advocacy.


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