The truth “hangs down like a dirty petticoat!”

The truth “hangs down like a dirty petticoat!”

Date: January 1, 1970
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I love international days of this and that. They are such grand occasions for leaders to remember some long forgotten agenda. And another one, World AIDS Day, has just passed.

I love international days of this and that. They are such grand occasions for leaders to remember some long forgotten agenda. And another one, World AIDS Day, has just passed.

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.

Focusing on women and girls with the slogan “Did you hear me today?” was fertile ground for a host of Presidents, Ministers and others with power, and the media, to pay lip service once again.

The UN Secretary General’s envoy, 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 the reality 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 Mr Lewis, nobody is going to howl from any place. There may have been audible noise on World AIDS Day from many quarters, but beyond this day, if you hear much more than a squeak, we as women will be extremely lucky.

There 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. 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?” already there is a problem.

If you are a leader, you are obliged to pay attention to what a citizen has to say. You hear a person. In a large majority of countries across Africa, women have no personhood.

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. The media hardly quotes opinions of nobodies – like women and girls, unless they have done something extraordinary. 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, matter. As someone eulogised 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?

Lofty and passionate speeches came 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 be something to talk about during the 365 days we should be howling to stop the spread of HIV?

Once again, we blindly celebrated women’s burdens of home-based care as a reflection of our African resilience and resourcefulness. 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.

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 us to just sit in a doctor’s room 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. And when they are done caring for everyone, nobody is there to care for them.

Well, the banners have come down and the media has moved already to the next flavour of the week. And, international donors and governments will still continue with their 1970s gospel in Africa of “less government”, and more privatisation. AIDS is not going to change macro economic orthodoxy, simply because some nameless and faceless women are having problems.

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 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 was probably collective laughter when some well known philanderers stood up to tell us all about safe sex. Young girls tittered into their bras watching the local sugar-daddies delivering the Secretary General’s speech with earnest faces. There was serious ga ga ga, and slapping of each others’ palms at the water well when the village women deconstructed 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. She writes in her personal capacity.

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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