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 Discovering Women and Girls, World AIDS day 2004—A cynical view
 Everjoice J. Win, Swaziland
 December 10, 2004
 

I love international days of this and that. They are such grand occasions for leaders to remember some long forgotten agenda. The charitable among us hope that occasions such as World AIDS day are a sign of things to come. The cynical like me, gnash our teeth as we see the insincere, the hypocritical and the couldn’t-care-less-on-a-good- day-types abuse the spaces that are created. As the world celebrated World AIDS day this year on December 1st, focusing on women and girls with the slogan, "have you heard me today?" we were treated to serious theatrics from coast to coast and subjected to Kings, Presidents, Ministers and others with power, exhorting women to do more, be involved.

Steven Lewis, God bless his soul, has tried his best to raise awareness of governments about what HIV means to women. From the simple fact that women are more vulnerable to infection, to that we are virtually "conscripted" labour when it comes to home-based care, the man has used everything from cajoling language to outrageously sounding right wing lingo. My favourite was his assertion at the Bangkok conference in July that if only African governments knew the kinds of problems women have, they would be "howling from the roof-tops". With all due respect to the UN Secretary General’s envoy, nobody howled from any place except this year on World AIDS day. Beyond that, if you hear much more than a squeak, we as women will be extremely lucky.

The are many reasons why our heads of state and government are neither outraged, nor even see the urgency of the implications of AIDS for women, Mr Lewis and co. Let’s start with a basic truth that nobody might have cared to mention. Women are not really autonomous human beings with feelings, rights and therefore entitlements. So when we come up with slogans such as, "Did you hear me today?" for World AIDS day, the starting point is problematic. You hear a person. You are obliged to pay attention to what a citizen has to say—if you are a leader. Women have no PERSONHOOD where I come from. In my language we are called, "madzimai" (Mothers), vanhukadzi (female persons—note the pre-qualification). In Ndebele they are called, "abesintwana", (those who are like children). Word play you might say, but the implications go deeper than that. If a girl gets raped, and the rapist is from the same place and is known, he will be asked if he wants to marry the girl. All he has to do is argue his undying lust and how it over-took him. And for a few hundred dollars, she is his. When a mature woman wants to get married, she doesn’t even have to be in the same room where the negotiations, (yes the haggling over the price of her uterus, just like in a Lagos market), take place. The brothers, father and uncles, and the occasional auntie will do the haggling. They will determine the value of her uterus, of her labour, or however they wish to aggregate it. They get the loot. Woe-betide her if she ever does anything to warrant the return of this money—like refusing to have sex with her buyer? Or refusing to bear yet another child, even if she knows it will endanger her health. And should she die before she has fulfilled the objectives for which the money was paid, the family must provide a substitute wife —her younger sister, or a niece. And some silly person will ask, "without her consent?" Consent is sought from feeling and thinking beings. No sane African leader is about to argue for a review of customary laws and beliefs of this nature. Why should they? It gives them power over the women in their own lives.

Asking "did you hear me today?" assumes the woman has a right to speak to begin with. Can anybody remind me of instances where women’s voices have mattered? In the family so-called "heads of households" views are what matter. Religious leaders remind us about this every time we go to prayers. In the classroom girls sit at the back, put down by cutting remarks from the teacher, "ah Anna, what can you tell us? Haven’t you found a husband yet?" The media hardly quote opinions of nobodies—like women and girls, unless they have done something extra-ordinary. Researchers tell us that our experiences are "anecdotal evidence" meaning they are less valid. Once the question is asked, "but is this scientifically proven?" we are silent and silenced. Never daring to speak up again. Only those whose analysis fits in a pie chart, can be quantified, and quoted by academics who matter. As someone eulogized a dead woman in Eritrea, "she was such a good woman, she hardly spoke above a whisper". Who doesn’t want to be remembered as a good person.

We heard fiery speeches from leaders telling us to change our behaviours and protect ourselves from HIV. Good idea. If only we could be protected from the leaders’ behaviour, that would be even better. Young women in Swaziland need to be protected from their monarch who lines them up each year for a free peep show. If only our leaders would stop testing young women for virginity and exposing them to predators who are looking for virgins to cure their HIV. And oh really if only all our Presidents and Ministers stuck to their first or only wives —wouldn’t that have been something to talk about on World AIDS day? I didn’t expect any discussion of these issues. These are our private African lives, and our traditions. Don’t anybody dare question them.

This year we heard leaders telling women to get more involved. They urged women to support governments by providing (more) home-based care, more, more and more. Haven’t we done enough surely? Who do hospitals release patients to, and tell them, "There is nothing more we can do. Take him home and do your best". Armed with a packet of pain-killers, two bandages, a bottle of detergent and a plastic bucket the home carer carries her patient back. Ready to give what they call in AIDS speak, "comprehensive care and treatment". Poor rural women walk up to five kilometres each day, taking care of sick community members. In some cases they have to give them their own meagre provisions, a little gruel here, an old blanket there. All of this without much support from anyone. The occasional NGO will train them in home care, dish out some more bars of soap, and once in a blue moon give a little financial token of appreciation. Certainly our Presidents are not going to howl from any roof-top because this is what poor black women have always done. It is our African-ness they will say. We shall celebrate these women’s burdens as a reflection of our African resilience and resourcefulness.

Ask those of us who have never stood at a bus stop for two minutes to do what these women do and see how we wilt in the sun. Ask them to just sit in a doctor’s rooms for 15 minutes and the nurse will not hear the end of it—violation of our rights, no way to treat people like us, you think we have time to waste. But village-women? Ah those have a lot of staying power. They persevere against all odds. They have cornered the market on suffering and selflessness. Maybe we should give these women some kind of merit badges? Mr. Kofi Annan, donations please. And when the women have done all the caring for everyone, nobody is there to care for them. If she’s married she will be sent back to her natal family, so that "your own people can see what to do, you can’t die in our home". Her own people equally have no time, inclination or resources to take care of her.

Now that the banners have come down and the media has moved to the nextflavour of the week, international donors and governments will still continue with their gospel of "less government", and more privatisation. Since the 1970s African governments have groaned under the weight of Structural Adjustment programmes. AIDS is not going to change macro economic orthodoxy. Simply because some nameless and faceless women are having problems is no reason to depart from market fundamentals. No howling from that quarter either Mr. Lewis.

All of these issues are not really new, nor is there a dearth of research or women’s voices. The problem is the world and its leadership does not want to listen because it is not convenient to change the "natural" order of things that we have created.

The bright side of all this is that the World AIDS day speeches provided much needed light relief in many women’s lives —if one doesn’t get into a coma from anger of course. The good thing about HIV and AIDS is that no matter how much one can speak with a forked tongue the truth is always hanging down like a dirty petticoat. There will be collective laughter when some well known philanderers stand up and tell us all about safe sex. Young girls will titter into their bras watching the local sugar-daddies delivering the Secretary General’s speech with earnest faces. There will be serious ga ga ga, and slapping of each others’ palms at the water well when the village women deconstruct those insincere speeches from women in leadership who normally don’t believe in this "women’s rights business". But maybe one should not be so cynical. Be grateful for small mercies, my Methodist upbringing reminds me. It is good for women’s rights to be finally "discovered". Even if the discovery is a century late, and billions of dollars short.

Everjoice J. Win is International Women’s Rights Coordinator with Action Aid and is a member of AWID’s Board of Directors. She writes in her personal capacity.