Dream of rights for women

By Chris Hufstader

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In the shadow of South Africa's abandoned prison No. 4, which held such eminent inmates as Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, Justice Johann Van Westhuizen called upon representatives of non-governmental organizations engaged in the fight for women's rights to take their inspiration from the site and continue their struggle. "Many of the heroes of South Africa's liberation struggle were imprisoned here, so it reminds us of injustice and suffering, and the power of the human spirit to overcome."

His words were spoken at a gathering to mark the beginning of a new collaboration to expand efforts to improve the situation of women's rights as a precondition to overcome the deadly HIV/AIDS epidemic ravaging the sub-region. Oxfam America's Southern Africa program kicked off the new program area with a convening of key organizations in the region culminating in the press event on Constitution Hill.

The HIV/AIDS crisis is the most significant obstacle to development in southern Africa. Recent studies by UNAIDS and a special task force appointed by the UN Secretary General studying women, girls, and HIV/AIDS in southern Africa show some staggering statistics: 30 percent of the world's people living with HIV/AIDS (about 11.4 million) are in nine countries that contain only two percent of the entire earth's population. Women and girls are sharing a disproportionate burden of infection and death from the insidious disease. The task force study estimates that three quarters of the young people 15 to 24 years old in Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Zambia that are currently living with HIV/AIDS are young girls and women.

These reports acknowledge one key reason women and girls are so vulnerable: their legal rights are not respected. Unequal laws on divorce and inheritance, as well as weak domestic violence legislation are leaving women vulnerable to abuse and poverty in an insecure environment. In some cases, women are considered legal minors, and are not allowed to make important decisions about their own lives, even if their husbands die.

Infected women, and those simply affected by the crisis, are missing out on employment and education opportunities as they fall ill or have to care for sick family members. Societal tolerance of sexual violence and harmful traditions frequently prevent women from controlling their sexual activity and discourage legal recourse in abuse cases.

Beyond wasting the potential of women in southern Africa, the resulting social dislocation, heavy health care and burial costs, and shortened life spans from the HIV/AIDS epidemic threaten the future for an entire generation. "We have crossed the threshold between the potential impact on women's development," said Mark Heywood, Director of the Aids Law Project of South Africa, speaking at a two-day conference sponsored by Oxfam America. "We are clearly experiencing the epidemic's impact on women's rights, which is a crucial aspect of what HIV/AIDS is doing to society."

Oxfam America has concentrated resources in the area of legal reform in Zimbabwe and Mozambique over the last eight years. Grant funds have supported research, advocacy, and popular campaigns designed to improve the legal framework to support women's rights in family laws, land ownership, domestic violence, and other key areas that directly affect women's welfare and livelihoods.

The new program area titled "HIV/AIDS Policy, Law and Women's Rights Partnership Program" builds off of the legal reform work in ways designed to help reduce the vulnerability of women to the disease, and eventually eradicate it. "Oxfam America must have a strong HIV/AIDS program in southern Africa,"" explained Regional Director Julio de Sousa. "In concentrating on these essential human rights issues, we will further women's rights and contribute to the fight against the epidemic."

Staff in Oxfam America's office in southern Africa consulted with a wide range of organizations with expertise in the areas of women's rights and the HIV/AIDS crisis. Together they developed a program that will include grants to organizations working on strengthening laws and policies designed to promote respect for women's rights, and challenging the social norms and values that condone violence against women and girls and contribute to their lower social status. Of equal importance will be looking at ways to improve the social support services essential for assisting women, including law enforcement, access to health care, and counseling.

The expanded program focus is building on fruitful collaborations with women's rights coalitions in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and constructing similar partnerships in South Africa and Namibia.

At the press event in Johannesburg, Justice Van Westhuizen challenged Oxfam America and its partners in this new program area to think big, to even dream. "We must be able to dream—because without dreams we will not exist." As one of the framers of South Africa's constitution, considered one of the world's most progressive, he was well aware of the power of a dream, as South Africa enters its 10th year under majority rule.

Equality for women and a stronger southern African society free of HIV/AIDS is still in the future, but the ideas are coming into place to make it a reality. As South Africa has shown, a dream is just the start of big things.