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AIDS And Women's Empowerment - 2002-08-16

In South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, the impact of HIV/AIDS is made worse by widespread poverty. Unemployment in rural areas is reported to be as high as ninety percent. A doctor in the province says the key to battling both the pandemic and poverty lies in empowering women.

Dr. Elizabeth Musaba is the founder of the Empilisweni Woodlands Center for AIDS Prevention, located in King Williams Town. Empilisweni means “healing place.” Dr. Musaba confirms statistics from U-N health officials and non-governmental organizations that HIV/AIDS is taking a terrible toll on women.

Dr. Musaba says, "Women are bearing the brunt of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. More women have been infected, many times through no fault of their own. They don’t personally take those risks but the virus has been brought to them by their partner."

She says the disease is striking at the heart of the family.

She says, "We believe that women are the pivotal point of the family. If you can think of any family that is happy it’s because the woman is happy. And even the old proverb, I think it’s an English proverb or saying, which says that, “when you educate a woman you educate a nation.” It’s because we are the carers for families. Even when women are sick themselves they still are caring for other sick members."

Dr. Musaba says gender inequality prevents women from protecting themselves against HIV/AIDS. In fact, she says it may actually put them in harm’s way by forcing them into prostitution to support themselves and their families.

Dr. Musaba, "The problems of gender equality are entrenched in the patriarchy. And the patriarchy is something that has been going on for centuries, where women have been subjected to being minors in society. They are dominated by men. They are not as valued as men. So this subordinate position in society we feel is, of course, a great reason why women are not able to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS."

She says most women living with HIV/AIDS in the twenty-one villages where Empilisweni operates are “monogamous mothers.” But she says they are at great risk of violence, including rape.

As a result, men are being asked to not only help stem the violence, but to help raise the status of women.

Dr. Musaba, "It is not the easiest of tasks because, of course, you have to tread carefully not to be seem to be going against the cultural norms, which in Africa translates into sex being a taboo subject. But if you’re going to educate people about HIV/AIDS, especially men, of course you have to be straightforward. You have to be frank. There is no time any more, time has gone, to beat about the bush. You have to speak frankly to them and sometimes that is not very easy. Even for us as educators it is not easy to go out there in the villages talking about anatomical parts to men who are twice our age."

She says if men “do not get on board” there will be little success in stopping the pandemic. She says Empilisweni is trying to get people “to reconstruct their value systems” so they look upon life as a “gift from God.” She says, “sex is also a gift from God, but it comes with responsibilities.”

To help rural women break out of the cycle of poverty, Empilisweni helps them find markets for the crafts and home furnishings they produce, as well as the crops and poultry they raise. Although the income may be small, the money comes in regularly and allows the women to plan for their families.

Dr. Musaba says action must be taken now to end what the U-N Population Fund calls “biological sexism.”

"The sheer millions of orphans that are here now are an indication of how many women we have lost. So, women have to be empowered very quickly. And the day is coming when each woman will have a choice, at least, in what is going to happen to their bodies and their lives," she says.

She says the goal of her organization is to help women achieve that.