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AIDS, Women and Violence - 2002-08-30

Besides unsafe sex, factors leading to the spread of HIV/AIDS include poverty, malnutrition and violence. The South African city of Katlehong, some thirty-five kilometers east of Johannesburg, experienced all of those problemsin the days, months and years leading to the end of Apartheid. One group that was formed in Katlehong to cope with the impact of Apartheid and is now helping people cope with HIV/AIDS.

Katlehong was the scene of frequent clashes between the white-ruled government’s security forces and members of the opposition group, the African National Congress. According to a 1994 report on the violence issued by the Goldstone Commission, “shooting incidents…had become a frequent occurrence and had caused the death and injury of many people and the dislocation of many families.”

The commission was led by Richard Goldstone, who would become a justice on South Africa’s Constitutional Court – and later the chief prosecutor for the UN Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

As a result of the continuing violence in Katlehong, social workers were called in from Johannesburg to provide grief counseling. One of them, Thembi Ramokgopa, decided to stay. She formed a family center, which her volunteer helpers named Khanya.

She says, "Oh, it means light. It means light! Yeah, light, bringing light. Because there are times when things seem really dark to a lot of people here."

She says she originally came to work with young people.

She says, "Our center was established because we were asked by a lot of schools in the area. Young people were in the forefront of the violence. They were really doing a lot of what they call ‘protection work.’ There were self-defense units. And they were still in schools. So, we came in to provide trauma counseling and we work mainly in the schools."

But there are also counseling and bereavement programs for “grannies” -- women whose sons and daughters have died from AIDS and are now raising their grandchildren.

Ms. Ramokgopa says the work has changed since 1994 to deal with child abuse, violence against women and HIV/AIDS. Hundreds of women now come to the center. She says violence, unsafe sex, and gender inequality have helped spread the AIDS virus.

She says, "There’s still a lot of violence against women and the girl child. Girl children and women get raped and as a result they do contract AIDS. And even where there is no rape, there’s still that reluctance among men and young men to use protection. And even if a woman insists on having protected sex, she has no control over it. She has no power to insist. And, you know, she gets involved in sexual activity, which is unprotected. So, that’s a form of violence against women, yeah."

With the dawn of democracy in South Africa following the 1994 elections, a new constitution was approved and many laws were passed guaranteeing equal rights. But the director of the Khanya Family Center says, in realty, not much has changed for women.

"We have very good laws that protect women. But in reality, when it comes to implementation of the laws there is a problem," says Ms. Ramokgopa. "Still unfortunately many women are not quite aware of those rights. They are not aware of their rights. And there is also the balance of power. You know, we are a patriarchal society. A lot of women still depend, even financially, on the men folk. Sometimes they don’t know what to do. They don’t have any rights. A woman might be unemployed and knowing that, ‘even if my husband abuses me and what have you, there’s nothing I can do.’ They are helpless."

She says even though some women file complaints about violence, their cases are often mishandled by the police and courts. As a result, the women get no recourse.

But while she says there’s much to be done to curb violence against women, she does see improvement in AIDS awareness. She says awareness programs are in most schools; and believes that as more people understand the consequences of unprotected sex, there will be an overall change in behavior. She has hope.

"I really do. It’s just at the moment the pandemic has spread. And, you know, we’ll still see high levels of people dying and what not, I have hope that it will get better once this awareness and education really is taken seriously by people."

The Khanya Family Center receives a small subsidy from the South African Government. But Ms. Ramokgopa says additional funds are needed as more and more people seek help.