Improving the status of women will harness the HIV and AIDS catastrophe in Africa

Date: January 1, 1970
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Governments and the global partners must allocate more and more resources to addressing the plight of Africa?s women, children and the poor in the face of increasing abject poverty, HIV and AIDS and marginalisation.

During a recent visit into the Kiambiu slums in Kenya, a group of United Nations officials, Ms Nane Annan, and Kenyan government officials, among others, had the doors pushed wide open for them to view up close the lives of people living with HIV and AIDS.

Also present was the UN Resident Coordinator, Paul andre dela Porte, the World Health Organisation (WHO) Country Representative, Dr Peter Eriki, as well as the Kenyan Minister of Health, Hon Charity Ngilu.

It was not an easy feat for all of us to negotiate our way into the slums while visiting an outreach initiative of women living with HIV and AIDS supported by the Kenya Network of Women Living with AIDS (KENWA). This organisation has received support from a number of organisations including the UN, especially the WHO.

We had to walk in almost single file, as there was no road. We now and again jumped over running dirty water flowing easily between the muddy huts. We crawled into a dark hut with no windows. Inside was almost total darkness, although it was only 10 o’clock in the morning.

Lying at the corner with barely enough blankets to cover herself was a 35-year-old woman dying of an AIDS-related illness. She had lost her husband a year ago. At her age and with nothing, she was left to care for her five children. A coughing four-year-old boy, whose future one dares not even to think about, peeped from behind her. Nobody could ask where the other children were for the trauma on her face was too much.

Standing there in full solidarity and deep-seated compassion and empathy was Esther, a young woman in her twenties living positively with HIV. A mother of two and a single parent, she gave her life to helping others. With her heart, empty hands and support from KENWA, she stands for hours in this dark, gloomy hut, surrounded by abject poverty and despair, but trudging on with the hope that WE, Africa and the world, will transcend this tragedy one day.

When the Kenyan Health Minister asked about the availability of drugs, services and food, nothing was said to be available in the neighbourhood, nor affordable, especially to this family.

The testimony shared by a young man who is living positively with HIV and nurtured by his neighbours in the slums, equally reinforced the expected roles of women and the importance of social relations. His family abandoned him when he declared his status. He declared to a multitude of over 200 people that without KENWA’s support, he would have died by now. Medicine, nutrition, support and hope were the key ingredients keeping him on.

The Kiambiu visit also reconfirmed the centrality of nutrition to care. Even in the absence of medicine, the basic minimum that is a right to all is a meal. “I get a plate of porridge from KENWA and this helps me spend the day,” was a mantra. Nutrition therefore must be a core element of the Voluntary Counselling Testing and Treatment package. In fact an ‘N’ should be added as an affirmation of the importance of nutrition.

Allocating more resources to HIV and AIDS programmes and addressing gender inequalities and the status of women in society, was the stark message we immediately understood, although nobody verbalized it. I could almost touch the pain in the house and the commitment of all to do something extra-ordinary and immediately. Ms. Annan, drawing on the best she is, her humility, her compassion and her understanding, was a tower of hope to us all.

The Bangkok Conference of HIV and AIDS is over, but this is still the time to generate even greater political commitment, and especially to recognise that HIV and AIDS is a humanitarian and catastrophic emergency.

Governments and the global partners MUST allocate more and more resources to addressing the plight of Africa’s women, children and the poor in the face of increasing abject poverty, HIV and AIDS and marginalisation. This investment also should include household food security, in addition to medicines. And, the centrality of women in the provision of household food is common knowledge.

The world and Africa can only make substantive progress in achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) only if substantive progress is made in addressing HIV and AIDS and in improving the status of women. If only both – the pandemic and gender inequalities – could be dealt with as the real emergencies that they are!

Nyaradzai Gumbonzvanda is the Regional Programme Director for the United Nations Development Fund for Women ( UNIFEM) East and the Horn of Africa.

This article is part of the GEM Opinion and Commentary Service that provides views and perspectives on current events. for more information. 

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