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ZIMBABWE AIDS - 2001-12-07

In Southern Africa, disseminating information about HIV/AIDS is proving to be a challenge for many organizations working to create awareness about the disease. The trend is no different in Zimbabwe where one in three people are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Health officials say the nearly 30 percent HIV infection rate is a conservative figure. In fact they say that number could be higher, because it only accounts for people who’ve actually been clinically tested. It could be one of the reasons the Southern Africa AIDS Information Dissemination Service or SAFAIDS has its base in Harare. SAFAIDS was set up in 1993. Its goal is to fill in the information gap between researchers and policy makers and people who use information about HIV in their daily work.

So, SAFAIDS provides information for organizations on a grass roots level, working in communities dealing with HIV/AIDS and related issues.

Sunanda Ray is the Director of SAFAIDS. She’s also a Public Health doctor. She says SAFAIDS uses information as a way of changing people’s vulnerability to HIV. "We support networks like the AIDS service organization networks that are in the region, SANASO by providing them with newsletters and booklets on HIV." She says, "We also support networks of organizations like ZAN (the Zimbabwe AIDS Network. At present we’re trying to get more in touch with organizations in other parts of the region, so that we can work more directly with them."

SAFAIDS also works with international organizations such as the UNAIDS, and the British Voluntary Service Overseas. But Dr. Ray says one of the major stumbling blocks has being ensuring that information given to its networks is being used in a responsible and ethical way. She says that’s not often the case. She gives the example of how a partner organization misrepresented the information given them. "There’s an instance quite recently of an organization that used our resource center quite a lot, but then went on to promote mandatory testing for young people in Zimbabwe. We then reacted to that to try and show them that that wasn’t a useful way to go, and we had a bit of a debate in the public arena. But that’s not to say that we would stop them from using the resource center. It’s for everyone. We’d like to have the opportunity to have some influence over how it’s used."

That’s difficult, according to Dr. Ray, because apart from the Harare office, SAFAIDS does not have offices in other countries in the region to constantly monitor the activities of its partner organizations. So it provides information booklets and newsletters to partner organizations. From then on, the use of that information is based entirely on trust.

She says, "In a sense it’s not really our responsibility to make sure that people are using the information. It’s really to facilitate what they themselves are doing so they can choose or not choose. We’re here as a service really to them." One of SAFAIDS’ major breakthroughs has been trying to walk through the barriers of taboos about sex and sex related issues in societies where such issues are not usually discussed. "If you talk to a lot of the elders in many African countries," she says, "their way of approaching things is that culture is the way they grew up, and they try and promote the same way of behaving for everybody. And we try and promote the idea that culture is not static, it’s very dynamic, and that it needs to be dynamic for people to move forward. And also to recognize that society is much more diverse now than it was say 50 years ago or 100 years ago, when some of the traditions were developed. And these are all debates that we’re trying to add to. A very exciting way is through the E-mail discussion groups."

Exciting as they want to make it, some have raised eyebrows about the number of people with access to e-mail. But Dr. Ray says Internet facilities are mushrooming in classrooms, offices and cafes throughout sub-Saharan Africa, and that has been quite helpful.

Furthermore, Dr. Ray says, it is important to be creative, borrowing new ideas from other parts of the world, and incorporating them in communities. That way, she says, young people who are mostly vulnerable will become much more engaged in the debate about HIV/AIDS.