Zimbabwe

Despite AIDS, voice of Zimbabwe's women kept alive

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by Solveig Olafsdottir in Harare
HIV/AIDS has stripped Gladys Sananguray of her social status. When her husband died of AIDS in 1999 and she herself tested positive, Gladys and her children were thrown out of their home in the Zimbabwean town of Chitungwiza by her husband's family.

Now they live in a shed that provides no shelter from the elements and which has no electricity or running water. But Gladys is living with a fear that is even greater than the here and now.

"The future of these lives, if I die myself," Gladys worries. "I do not know who will take care of these young children of mine."

Hers is a predicament faced by millions of women around the world. In sub-Saharan Africa, HIV/AIDS infection rates among women now exceed those for men, leading to the collapse of traditional family structures and the gradual loss of cultural continuity as a whole generation of children are left orphaned.

Most parents choose not to reveal their HIV/AIDS status to their children and family because of the stigma attached to the disease. They know they will die and there will be no-one to fend for their children. It's a painful knowledge to live with. In sub-Saharan Africa women are the main producers of food. They are also the cultural link between generations. With their death, an important voice is dying.

On International Women's Day, the International Federation is warning of catastrophic social consequences unless women are given a greater say in the battle against HIV/AIDS.

The Zimbabwe Red Cross is determined to break this vicious cycle of silence and lend a voice to women through its Memory Box project. Mothers, powerless in the face of death, are helped to communicate with their children by making a treasure chest of information such as family photographs, letters, stories and history.

Parents and children working on the project together has multiple benefits. It not only helps lessen the trauma of a parent who will leave children orphaned, it also keeps alive the memory of a mother, helping children to maintain a sense of history and belonging long after the death of the parent.

The Memory Box also serves as an important vehicle in the AIDS education battle, by allowing people to talk openly about the disease. The response of Gladys's children to her HIV-positive status has brought her great relief.

"When I am talking to them, they say, 'no, Mum, nowadays it is all over so we accept it as it is. We still need you," she says. "They always take my memory book, read, revise and talk to each other."

The reality of Lexa Samugadza, a single mother of three young girls, is somewhat different. She has worked since she was 15 in Chitungwiza's health clinic and is self-sufficient. Her family has taken her condition as a fact of life that needs to be coped with. Still, she shares Gladys' worries about her daughters' futures and wishes she could see them through to adulthood.

"I think I wrote in my memory book that they must keep away from men and concentrate on their school, and then after that they must learn to keep each other close," says Lexa."Even if they have different fathers they have to support each other."

She may not be there when they are adults, but Lexa still wants her mother's ambitions to be fulfilled. "I want them to go to university so they can teach other children that if you don't have a father, only your mother around, you can be someone," she insists.

Lexa's 25-year-old sister, Adeline, has worked for the Red Cross HIV/AIDS programme for more than seven years. She has no doubt that, in order to protect women from HIV/AIDS, women need to be empowered to fend for themselves. She is right. In sub-Saharan Africa, women now account for 58 per cent of adults with HIV/AIDS. Across the world, 19.2 million women are living with the disease out of an estimated global total of 42 million people.

With stigma and discrimination preventing women from speaking out and protecting themselves, those figures are set to rise. Adeline pushed her sister to appear on camera, feeling that women have to speak up for themselves and share their experience so that others can learn.

"At first we were treating it as a family affair - we did not want others on the outside to know her status - our family's status," Adeline says. "But as time goes on, we are being taught about how to break the stigma. We find it so easy to spread the word all over the world."

Although organisations such as the International Federation carry out large-scale HIV/AIDS prevention programmes, more work is needed to lessen women's vulnerability to the disease and to ensure a cultural continuity between generations. Programmes such as the Memory Box are a step in the right direction but there is still a very long way to go.