Call for regional women's organisation to combat HIV/AIDS

Former South African first lady Graca Machel has called on women in southern Africa to tackle traditional practices that may contribute to the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Addressing delegates from the region at a gender equality conference in Ezulwini, just outside Swaziland's capital, Mbabane, Machel highlighted the impact of the virus on women.
"We are the ones who are most affected by AIDS: of the people infected with HIV, 58 percent are women; of the people dying of AIDS, 58 percent are women - it is time to say, 'enough!'"

Machel noted that unless women and girls asserted their rights, they would continue to bear the brunt of the disease.

"Girls must be told to be assertive, not to be passive. Wives, knowing that your man is out with other women - and your mother-in-law says there is nothing she can do to protect you, that you must resign yourself to death from AIDS - no, that must change!" Machel said.

"My proposal is a social movement, like the one that brought down apartheid: those who are the most oppressed first liberated themselves, then they liberated others; women will liberate themselves. We have to reinvent traditions in the sub-region - I'm not saying reject them, but reinvent them," the former first lady suggested.

Other speakers echoed Machel's call for an organised women's movement to combat the pandemic in Southern Africa, which has some of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world.

"In South Africa, women's organisation is at an all-time low, and this is true throughout the region," said Shamim Meer, a Johannesburg-based gender consultant, adding that in recent years gender empowerment funding had shifted to other causes, such as HIV/AIDS.

Conference organisers noted that Swaziland had been chosen as the site for the meeting because of ongoing institutionalised discrimination against women in traditional kingdom. The customary and formal legal position of Swazi women is that of a minor.

One of King Mswati's 12 wives, Queen LaMbikisa, briefly spoke in favour of women's equality. Although she belongs to a polygamous household, the queen obtained a law degree over the objections of palace conservatives.

Lois Lunga, executive director of the Southern Africa AIDS Information and Dissemination Service, said, "What we, as women, are saying ... [is that] HIV/AIDS has pulled women back two decades in terms of gender equality development, and the view in Africa remains bleak, particularly violence against women, which spreads AIDS."

Delegates expressed the confidence that they would be able to set up a regional women's empowerment network and establish movements in their own countries.

"We are tasked with incorporating conference recommendations into Zimbabwe's Human Development Policy," Judith Laulen, co-ordinator of Harare's Institute of Development Studies, told PlusNews. "It will be a comprehensive policy - gender equality, poverty alleviation - and the call to empower women in the AIDS battle fits right in."