Southern Africa women still face huge challenges

It was a few days ago when I was read a story about this  woman walking down a dusty road, her four-year-old daughter holding her hand, her-one-year-old son on her back and a bunch of wood she collected as she walked along, on her head. She is on her way home after visiting a distant clinic. She and her son both have HIV/AIDS. For her, as for many Southern African women, decades of liberation struggle and eventual emancipation from colonial rule did not bring much change. In fact the past decade has brought along with it one of her biggest challenges, HIV and AIDS.  After reading this article it left me with a lot more questions than answers. The main question was whether there is a future for women in Southern Africa and Africa at large. There was an era of hope during the liberation struggle. Women played just as an important role as men during that time. They were out there in the battlefields. They were there in the camps, taking care of the children and the wounded. They were teachers, doctors and administrators, but when independence came, they were sent back to the farms to be mothers and wives. Governments with few or no women were formed and leaders focused on a narrow agenda that pushed women to the margins. The face of HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa if not in the whole world is that of a woman. Although it was the former United Nations’ Secretary General Kofi Annan who made that famous statement a few years ago, the World Health Organization (WHO), also confirmed this last year when HIV/AIDS was identified as the leading cause of death and disease amongst women worldwide, especially in Africa. AIDS is officially a woman’s disease. The study from WHO on women’s health also highlights the inequality in health care faced by females of all ages because of poverty, less access to health care and cultural beliefs that put a priority on male well-being.” The virus has the highest prevalence rates in Sub-Saharan Africa, where women make up an estimated 57% of adults living with HIV, and three quarters of young people living with the disease here are young women between the ages of 15-24. President Barack Obama, who held a meeting with 115 young African leaders at the White House recently, blamed the upswing in new HIV/AIDS infections in Africa on retrogressive culture that makes females satisfy the pleasure of men. “In Africa, empowering women is going to be critical to reducing the transmission rate because so often women, not having any control over sexual practices and their own body, end up having extremely high transmission rates,” he said. President Obama has told African governments to change the behavior of their citizens to prevent HIV spread, saying treating patients while others are catching the virus is untenable. “We are never going to have enough money to simply treat people who are constantly getting infected,” he said. “We’ve got to have a mechanism to stop the transmission rate,” said the President. In Namibia, women and children are among the poorest of the poor. Women work as subsistence farmers, domestic workers and in the informal economy. Many of them are single mothers who have no support from the fathers of their children. They hold families and communities together in the face of poverty, escalating domestic violence and the impact of illness and death. Women are not only infected with the virus but are also the primary caregivers of others under the home-based-care scheme.   Old and tired women who themselves need care have to wash and feed their dying children, and raise their orphaned grandchildren. At the same time patriarchal culture and traditions continue to be invoked as a means of violating women’s rights and controlling their bodies. How can all these challenges be overcome to secure equal rights for women and to remove gender discrimination from laws, institutions, and behavioral patterns. The woman and her child might not know anything about the SADC summit happening in Windhoek this week and next, but she would be happy if its deliberations make her and her children’s lives more bearable.

August 2010
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