When I was told about Hope Rising and asked to say a few words, I accepted immediately. No hesitation, no checking of schedules – just immediate acceptance. There were two reasons for this.
The first is all about Stephen Lewis. He has been a key influence in my life – though I am only one of so many young women (well, not so young now!) whose careers he has nurtured. I will always love him for his passion, his caring, his fierce commitment to challenging the inequities of our world… and also for his ingrained respect for others, especially women. It’s that determination to root out inequality, to challenge the use and abuse of power, and to nurture strength and potential that has been reflected not just in his life and work, but also in the establishment and the work of the Stephen Lewis Foundation.
And that is the second reason I came: Because I knew that Hope Rising wouldn’t be the typical fundraising event. I’ve witnessed far too many that have made me furious about their portrayals of African women as helpless, hapless victims, about their pictures of children with distended bellies and their implications that Africans cannot or do not care for their children or communities, and need to be ‘saved’ by people thousands of miles away. I knew that SLF would make sure Hope Rising was about solidarity and not a degrading type of pity.
It has been a great privilege to have spent years working alongside many truly extraordinary African women…I cannot and never would dream of speaking for them, but I do want to bring them into this space this evening – as I know them – experts, innovators and true leaders.
So let me tell you the story of just one of the thousands of women we want to celebrate. Patience is a retired nurse living in Tanzania, raising 5 grandchildren. After losing three of her five adult children to AIDS, she made the 5 hour walk to the nearest clinic with her grandchildren, and they all got tested. Only 1 child tested positive, but so did Patience.
Depression, and the sting of stigma kept Patience at home for months. Her
grandchildren stayed home from school, worried sick about the only adult left in their lives. Maybe it was seeing her grandchildren so frightened; maybe it was her love
for them, or the knowledge that her three dead children had entrusted her with the wellbeing of their children; or maybe it was what used to be drummed into me as a child – that African women just don’t give up! Whatever the motivation, Patience found the strength to pull herself out of that depression and tackle the multiple calamities that AIDS had laid at her door.
Today, Patience is a home-based care worker with a project called Umatu. Every day she is up at 5 a.m., gets the children ready for school, cooks a modest breakfast, and heads out on a bicycle to care for 20 other families struck down by AIDS. They are in different stages of suffering and loss, and for many, it is the nutrition, healing, counseling and support that Patience and Umatu bring that has helped them begin to live positively with HIV, rather than dying from AIDS.
Yet, even as we celebrate Patience, we must ask why her expertise is so marginalised in decision making circles; why her voice is not heard in the corridors of power where HIV/AIDS policy is designed.
This short sightedness has accelerated the ravages of AIDS in Africa — along the faultlines of gender inequality. Women’s bodies have become the ground zero of the pandemic: The violence they absorb, the love and nurture they give, the children they nurse, the children they bury, the grandchildren they raise. With pain and with strength, women repair the fabric of their lives and of those around them.
It is this expertise that the SLF listens to and treats with respect. In 9 years the SLF has invested over 60 million dollars, working with more than 300 organisations in 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. We can see the profound difference in the quality of life in those communities, but so much more still needs to be done.
At an African grandmothers’ gathering in Swaziland in 2010 hosted by the SLF and a local organization, SWAPOL, we heard the powerful voices of African women. Let me end with their words:
“In 2006 we were battered by grief, devastated by the deaths of our beloved sons and daughters, and deeply concerned for the futures of our grandchildren. We stand here today battered, but not broken.
We are the backbones of our communities. We form the core of community-based care. With our love and commitment we protect and nurture our orphan grandchildren. Africa cannot survive without us.
We are strong, we are visionary, we have faith and we are not alone. Together we will turn the tide of AIDS.”
Tonight I ask you to show that those grandmothers really are not alone. I ask you to stand in solidarity with the women of Africa, with the SLF, and with women and men of commitment the world over – to stand in solidarity to turn the tide of AIDS… and to keep hope rising. Thank you.