The future is in y(our) hands

Date: August 4, 2010
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The future was in my hands.


And who knew a press briefing could be so monumental?

Last week, at the press conference following the successful results of the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA) microbicide study, I convinced Quarraisha Abdool Karim, lead researcher, to smear a bit of the clear odourless gel onto my palm.

I then realised why so many awestruck fans vow never to wash their hands after sharing a high-five with their favourite celebrity, or why political junkies never wash the shirt that some honoured diplomat happened to brush as he or she walked past.

It’s something to do with being part of history, in however small or large a way. It’s about being able to say that you experienced something momentous; and even life-altering.

And I did, indeed, feel that way during the recent 18th annual International AIDS Conference in Vienna, Austria as Abdool Karim shared the findings of his group’s study: which proved that a microbicide gel containing the tenofovir antiretroviral was 39% effective in reducing a woman’s risk of becoming sexually infected with HIV.

During the study of almost 900 women, participants were advised to use the gel up to 12 hours before sex and soon after intercourse.

It all sounded so simple.

But I wonder just how many of southern Africa’s women – still suffering under the yoke of patriarchy, often in the form of sexual violence – actually felt the reverberations of the occasion.

Sub-Saharan Africa remains the nesting ground for HIV, with more than half (60%) of those infected with the virus being female. Sexual violence – as perpetrated by husbands, lovers and strangers alike – coupled with convoluted sexual networks (with low or non-existent condom use) remain prime drivers of the epidemic in a region whose women often have little negotiating power on when, where, why and how sex happens.

You might argue that 39% effectiveness among less than 1000 women is insignificant, but when you consider that previous microbicide trials have been halted due to disastrous results and unexpected side-effects, this study is definitely advancing the cause in the right direction.

“Microbicides are vital, not just for all women, as it is one of the very few female-controlled prevention technologies we have, but especially for populations that are particularly vulnerable to violence, dangerous sex and structural injustice,” reminds Marlise Richter, a prominent South Africa sex-worker rights activist.

In the 14 countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, sex work remains criminal and heavily stigmatised; though for thousands of women it remains their only form of income generation.

But the findings actually are significant for all women in the region.

Hope Msumza, an HIV/AIDS activist, believes that with empowerment and education of women, a microbicide can finally yield a solution to the rampant spread of HIV among the region’s women.

“Women usually rely on men when it comes to preventing HIV, and this tool can empower women in a very positive and meaningful way,” she says. “But it’s going to take long.”

Indeed the process of social reform will be a slow one.

But microbicide researchers have done their bit, and will continue to do so. According to Abdool Karim, we are still at least three years away from seeing this microbicide becoming widely available to the public.

But where, I beg, are the political leaders of our region in following on by implementing gender-sensitive policies and legislation that would ensure that such innovations are accepted and understood by the very communities that they can assist?

The SADC Protocol on Gender and Development, which was adopted in 2008 and which encompasses commitments towards achieving gender equality within all societal spheres, has still only been ratified by three countries – Malawi, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

With its far-reaching goals set to be achieved by 2015, a mere five years from now, the slow trundle towards ratification by the region’s leadership puts the Protocol at risk of being yet another Pyrrhic victory for women’s rights activists.

Article 27 of the Protocol reads that state parties shall by 2015 develop gender sensitive strategies to prevent new HIV infections, as well as ensure universal access to HIV and AIDS treatment for infected women and girls.

The researchers and scientists are paving the way in developing new innovations that might help our region realise a drop in HIV incidence, a goal our governments heartily cheer in all their AIDS-related rhetoric.

But these will only work if governments put their money and commitment where their mouths are and support an overhaul of gender insensitive policies and practices.

If science, innovation – and political will – do not soon coincide, then we are set to continue to celebrate hollow victories that mean nothing in terms of women’s lived lives.

Women can’t wait. They die each time we fail them.

I touched the future in my hand last week. Sadly, it will remain just that if our leaders don’t commit today to something more substantive.

Sign the dotted line and turn all this talk into real action!

Fungai Machirori is a Zimbabwean writer, researcher, poet and journalist based in South Africa where she works in HIV and AIDS communication. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service.

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