Women continue to bear the brunt of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, often serving as caregivers despite their own HIV infections – and as victims of rape, which is helping to spread the disease. But African women are working to gain international support for caregivers and a zero tolerance for sexual violence.
One of the starkest examples of the plight of women caring for those with HIV/AIDS can be found in Kenyan slums. With almost no resources, women share what little they have to prolong the lives of family members, friends and even strangers.
Nyaradzai Gumbonzvanda is the regional program director in East Africa for UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women. She describes often-typical conditions for women caregivers.
She says, "They find that there is no food in the house. That there is no water. They themselves are also poor caregivers. So, either they end up digging deep into their own pockets to buy food for the family they’re providing care for – or at times they simply cannot meet their expectations of the patient. Especially, where the patient has to be taken to the hospital where they need drugs – or where they ask for their children to go to school. And these are requests, which are beyond the means of the caregiver."
At times, one woman cares for as many as five people, leaving little time for her own family.
She says, "At the household level, definitely what is very clear is that around a sick woman the majority of the people there are women. Around a sick man the majority of people who are there are also women."
The Global Coalition on Women and AIDS is recommending greater support for women at the community level, providing, food, health care services and education. It is also recommending that these caregivers be formally recognized as a branch of government services.
Ms. Gumbonzvanda says African women are also working to reverse and end the growing violence against women – which has become a weapon of war.
She says, "If one listens to any news article, any media report on Darfur, on the conflict in the DRC, the situations which were happening in Liberia, Sierra Leone, in Somalia – Always there are cases of sexual violence and rape. So, more and more, rape is part of the matrix of how the war is being waged."
The UNIFEM official says even ceasefires may not help.
"When there is a ceasefire, for instance, the men can stop fighting using the weapons – but they continue fighting through women’s bodies," she says.
She says sexual violence must be seen as a peace and security issue – not only because it “grossly violates women’s rights – but because of the perpetual insecurity it creates.”
She says, "What is needed I think first is a massive political commitment to saying no to rape and to sexual violence, wherever it happens. Even if it’s one woman, whether it’s a hundred women, whether it’s one boy or many, because sexual violence also happens to men, there must be a political non-tolerance attitude. Secondly, where peace negotiations are happening, the issue of sexual violence must be integrated as a core discussion with the belligerents or with the different groups that would be at the negotiating table."
Ms. Gumbonzvanda says this policy must come at the highest levels and become part of a country’s code of conduct for its army and police. She says if heads of state collectively address the issue of sexual violence, it would send a strong message to those committing the crimes.