Thursday, February 8, 2007

Day 2--Fighting for Rights in SA

It’s impossible to ignore the powerful experiences of the South African people. I remember learning about apartheid in high school. In college I had a wonderful professor who was South African, who taught us South Africa’s history of struggle and resilience while exposing us to literature from the range of cultures in this diverse country. Today has shown me the commitment South Africans still have to human rights. The theme among the people I’ve met so far is that, with apartheid done and democracy in place, South Africa’s biggest struggle now is HIV/AIDS and gender-based violence. Yesterday I met with two more Johannesburg-based organizations that showed me how this new struggle might be overcome.

Yesterday morning, I met with staff from the gender unit at the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR). I first discovered this organization during grad school, while researching my thesis on using restorative justice to help torture survivors heal. South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which takes testimonials from those who lived the horrors of apartheid and tries to provide emotional and spiritual healing, is one of the best examples of restorative justice in the world (similar exercises have been conducted in, for example, post-war Guatemala and Sierra Leone). Now that I have moved away from working with torture survivors and into supporting those who have been raped and abused in less political settings and those who have become infected by the world’s deadliest disease of poverty, CSVR is still relevant to my work.

CSVR is a strong voice for survivors of violence, but also recognizes the importance of figuring out why people (mostly men) rape and abuse women and children, since without understanding their motivation reconciliation and prevention may never be possible. I see CSVR as an organization not unlike the Global AIDS Alliance, one that speaks truth to power by revealing the extent of the violence that goes on here in South Africa, and its disastrous impacts. CSVR is also a leader on the national coalition of NGOs working to pass the Sexual Offenses Bill in the best form possible. South Africa already has a progressive domestic violence law, and Parliament here is also considering what seems to be a very good law to protect children. With organizations like CSVR pushing the government to make the law as good as possible and watching to see that implementation is also good, I hope that their research will soon be obsolete. But there is a long way to go here before a human rights culture will be firmly in place and needless suffering can mostly end.

One of the issues that must be addressed in order to make good laws work with society for positive change is gender norms. On Monday I visited Men As Partners. On Tuesday I visited Sonke Gender Justice Network, an indigenous organization started by men who had in some fashion been working on gender issues in South Africa, and who realized that men needed to be engaged if South Africa is to have the sort of success with gender violence that it had with the apartheid regime. Sonke works with men by adapting positive parts of traditional culture and religion to help men see that hitting and raping women is not what is expected of them, and in fact that this behavior is bad for the community as a whole. By mapping men’s and women’s 24-hour days, participants come to see that women often work the entire day, toiling while their male relatives read the paper or drink beer with their buddies. And women’s work is rarely paid. The men of Sonke told me that this exercise often makes men go home and begin to share chores with their wives, and to teach their sons to do the same. To me, this is a real sign of success and needed change…I so admire feminist men!

Sonke also has a really exciting and innovative program to get men involved in prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission (PMTCT). PMTCT is a really simple, cost-effective intervention that can keep HIV-positive mothers from infecting their babies. But access to PMTCT services in horribly minimal around the world. So Sonke is going into communities to talk to men about supporting their wives during pregnancy and the benefit to the future of their families and communities. This is good public health and human rights practice, since it keeps babies from being unnecessarily infected and helps to ensure that women can access healthcare, a basic human right like the freedom South Africans sought during the fight against apartheid. Plus, Sonke is training local communities to advocate for access to these PMTCT services, to tell their local leaders and provincial governments that they are obligated to provide health care, including PMTCT. Once people know how to seek their own rights, the possibilities for change are endless.

After work I visited Soweto, the township that was basically a ghetto when apartheid first began, and the site of the Soweto students uprising in 1960, where police killed almost 70 students who were, by most reports, marching peacefully to protest policies requiring them to be educated in the colonizers’ language, Afrikaans. It’s incredible to see the way people are reclaiming Soweto, staying and making improvements rather than moving into the city where there are fewer memories of that harsh time. It is also really sobering to think of the lengths that South Africans went to to secure their freedom. I’m so glad they succeeded. They really are a sign of hope to so many people around the world whose basic rights still aren’t being met. Their history also makes me believe that the people of South Africa, led by strong civil society organizations like CSVR and Sonke Gender Justice, can overcome the twin disasters of violence against women and children and HIV/AIDS. All over Soweto I saw signs about HIV testing and treatment, and even a billboard for Project RED, which contributes a portion of proceeds from certain products to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. It seems Soweto will remain a community with its eyes on the future. They just have to work together. And we can all help.


Healy said...

Sounds like you're going a lot of amazing places, Lisa!!!

Does Sonke work on PMTCT-plus or just PMTCT? While obviously PMTCT is hugely important, it seems to me problematic when programs (and I don't know how it is in that part of South Africa but I do know it's the case in lots of parts of the world) only provide treatment to HIV positive women when they're pregnant. It's like saying--you're valuable as abirther of children and that's it.

In fact, that mindset (whether real or just suggested by limited treatment options for women who either aren't pregnant or for pregnant women when they are HIV positive) seems like it would reinforce gender constructions that perpetuate gender based violence.

None of that is to suggest that Sonke is doing the wrong thing (everyone works within limitations), but rather just a thought/question I have whenever PMTCT is discussed and PMTCT Plus is not. (Of course, I also ask in situations where PMTCT Plus is widely available but treatment for non-pregnant women is not, what sort of pressure that puts on HIV positive women to become pregnant as their one true shot at receiving treatment. Now, I don't know how often that is a reality for women, but certainly no woman should have to make a decision about having a baby based on whether she will or won't receive treatment. I suppose all of that is to say that we won't have true equity until we have universal access to prevention, treatment, and care.)

I look forward to reading your future blogs!

Dean said...

Just a quick response to the important questions raised by Healy about our work at Sonke Gender Justice with regards to PMTCT.

Sonke has a firm commitment to ensuring full access to treatment for all who need it. Prompted by early critiques of activism focused solely on securing treatment for women during their pregnancy, groups like the Treatment Action Campaign and other human rights focused organisations have long since shifted to a clearer women's rights position that demands universal access. And we've got a long way to go--only about 20% of those who need treatment currently have access to it. PMTCT uptake is generally better but still far from adequate.

Sonke's Men and PMTCT initiative focuses on a number of issues--men's support for their partners right to get tested, men challenging other men's violence related to their partner disclosing an HIV positive diagnosis, men and women working together to demand that clinics provide ART and that there are no stock-outs of formula for those who choose to exclusively formula feed, men's increased involvement in home based care and men's increased uptake of HIV services (in a context where men typically get tested and access treatment at far lower rates than women).

For more on our work please visit our website at

And if you're interested check out an article on our work in rural areas addressing gender inequalities amongst migrant farmworkers at:


Lisa-GAA said...

Hi Healy!

Thanks for your comment! You're right to have these concerns, and you're right that too many programs don't treat the "whole" woman, meaning that PMTCT programs are really missing the boat on universal treatment and gender equity. As far as Sonke goes, I think that Dean's comments are much more authoritative than mine and I think he has addressed your concerns. The men I met with at Sonke seemed truly dedicated to empowering women in South Africa and to making men allies in this struggle. I really found them very moving. They are a young organization with some really creative ideas, and because they are focused on ensuring universal human rights, I think their programs will only get better!

Healy said...

Dean and Lisa,

Thanks to you both!!! This is great and helpful information!

Best to you both!