Women are key to solving AIDS crisis in Southern Africa

By Chris Hufstader
Activistas (women peer educators and home based carers) singing and dancing at an HIV/AIDS education performance in a beira on the outskirts of Maputo. These activistas are supported by MULEIDE, a women's human rights organisation that is a member of the

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A week after Leona's husband died of AIDS, she went to lay flowers at his grave. At 36, she is now a widow, HIV positive, and has five children to support ranging in age from 10 months to 18 years. Seeing Leona at his grave, her in-laws chased her away. They blame her for his death and now they want her house. "His relatives are telling me to get out," Leona said. "I am concerned they will come to take everything."

The 25th anniversary of the AIDS epidemic has come and gone, and after all the UN meetings, the hand wringing, and the finger pointing, there remains one key element that has received little press: In the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic—in southern Africa, home to one of every three people in the world living with HIV—it is women like Leona, in Mozambique, who are shouldering a disproportionate burden of the disease.

The problem here is lack of respect for women's rights. In some places in southern Africa women are prohibited by law from owning or inheriting property, and so have few financial assets. This limits their independence, putting them at risk financially, emotionally, and sexually. It is not surprising that more than half of the world's HIV-infected women, more than nine million of them, live in southern Africa, according to the UNAIDS report released in November 2006. With little power to negotiate their sexual activity, females in some areas of southern Africa now represent three quarters of HIV and AIDS infected people aged 15 to 24. When people say AIDS has become a "feminized" epidemic, this is what they mean. In 2004, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan appointed a task force to study the problem. The experts urgently recommended the development of non-discriminatory laws and policies designed to help women protect their rights and reduce their vulnerability.

The countries of southern Africa lack adequate resources (not to mention a vaccine and access to drugs) to care for the millions with HIV and AIDS. Yet unlike the scientific barriers to ending the epidemic, it is well within our power to support women's rights—an essential means to cutting down the number of women infected and affected by HIV and AIDS.

Creating equal rights for women in Africa, like everywhere else, is a challenge. Last May, I saw it for myself. Within an hour of my arrival in South Africa, I heard on the radio that the African National Congress's Deputy President Jacob Zuma was acquitted of charges that he had raped an HIV-positive woman, the daughter of an ANC comrade.

Violence against women is endemic in South Africa, where a woman is raped every 26 seconds. But women's rights experts I met said that the Zuma trial itself said a lot about the country's attitude toward women. There was intense scrutiny of the victim's sexual past, while Zuma's was not considered. Zuma, a potential presidential candidate, arrived at the courthouse in a motorcade with body guards and enjoyed vocal supporters in the streets as he proudly invoked his Zulu culture to explain why he'd had unprotected sex with the woman. By contrast, attempting to ensure her safety and preserve her privacy, the accuser crept into the court through the back door. The discrepancy in power and access to justice was remarkable, especially since the country was just celebrating the 10th anniversary of its progressive constitution, which has very clear provisions guaranteeing equality for men and women before the law.

But for every Zuma trial, there is progress too. The day I encountered Leona in Mozambique, she met with a legal advisor at a women's rights organization in Maputo to learn how to defend her right to stay in her house. Accustomed to claiming a dead relative's assets, her in-laws did not realize that Mozambique had a new Family Law that protects the right of widows to inherit property. "He never had another wife," Leona said, "so no matter what his relatives say, I have the right to inherit the house and things."

In addition to changing laws, proponents of women's right also need to work with cultural leaders to help encourage long-term changes in customs and traditions that discriminate against women. Women themselves are taking this on, sometimes at great personal risk. Cecilia Reis, an elderly traditional healer and guardian of culture and tradition in her community, told me that she is committed to teaching women about their rights under Mozambique's new Family Law to counter the exploitative customs that put them in danger of poverty and abuse. "You have to stand up, face men eye to eye," she told me. "This is the only way for them to see the power of women."

In one of the most notable successes of legal reform in the region, a coalition of five women rights and development organizations in Mozambique, funded by Oxfam America, researched and advocated forthe new Family Law. They showed what strong organizations and committed women can do with the right kind of assistance.

Governments, the UN, international NGOs, and other donors need to expand their horizons in the fight against HIV and AIDS, and address the gender dimension of the crisis. We all have a responsibility to ensure that women like Cecilia have the support they need to create solutions to their own problems. For the most heavily infected and affected part of the world, it is an essential component in the fight against AIDS and the fight for our future.