Comment: Grandmothers help Africans turn the tide of AIDS

The Stephen Lewis Foundation’s Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign supports African grandmothers to identify what they need to care for and nurture their grandchildren and other vulnerable children in their care.

These are children whose parents have died from HIV and AIDS. Today, more than 15 million children in sub-Saharan Africa have been orphaned by the pandemic. In community after community, local projects have been developed at the grassroots level by the people living there.

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On Sept. 7, the Stephen Lewis Foundation hosted the first African Grandmothers Tribunal, at the Chan Centre in Vancouver. The tribunal brought six representative African grandmothers and two expert witnesses from the African projects. More than 1,100 people and four tribunal judges (Gloria Steinem, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, Joy Phumaphi and Theo Sowa) listened to their stories.

I had the privilege of attending this powerful gathering in Vancouver. As the African grandmothers spoke, the painful expressions on their faces were agonizing for me to see as they recounted the deaths of multiple family members from HIV/AIDS. I reeled from their examples of the violence they experienced resulting from the poverty and isolation associated with the disease. Their expressions of hopelessness and despair left me deeply moved.

Their demeanour changed as they described the hope that is generated through the foundation’s funding of projects, supporting them to secure better futures for their communities. Through their involvement, they are able to put their grandchildren through school, support them through the loss of their parents, and teach them about HIV prevention and treatment.

They are caring for people who are sick, setting up support groups, harvesting crops and creating income-generating programs. The grandmothers are advocates for their families, and are emerging as experts and leaders, increasingly acknowledged by governments and international non-governmental organizations. They are empowering themselves and regaining meaningful purpose in their lives through increasing their control over a terrifying situation.

One particularly poignant and meaningful moment for me occurred when an African grandmother told us that as she grew stronger and regained her sense of purpose in life through the opportunities the foundation-funded project afforded her, the less she thought about needing to commit suicide. Her feelings of control turned her heart and emotions to courage and she began to be able to stand up for her basic human rights and fight against the entrenched systems keeping her oppressed.

The tribunal amplified the voices of the African grandmothers concerning the discriminating triple threat they face at the frontlines of the AIDS pandemic, based on their sex, age and HIV status.

The tribunal sent a clarion call to all peoples and nations to promote, protect and respect the grandmothers’ rights to property, bodily integrity, income security, freedom from violence and quality health care. The judges spoke to the need for change through improved laws, policies, funding priorities, consultation, positive cultural practices and greater access to justice.

This is precious little in the face of Africa’s reality. The world needs to awaken itself to the reality that Stephen Lewis Foundation funding is but a drop in the bucket to address the devastating effects of the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa. Additional money is needed at every level to support the community-based model whereby the African grandmothers identify their issues and develop and implement strategies to address those issues.

I am proud to be one of thousands of Canadian grandmothers who support and stand in solidarity with the incredible grandmothers of Africa. The Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign I am a part of is active right across the country. We raise awareness and we raise funds, and today there are more than 240 Canadian grandmother groups.

The truth is that whether we live in Victoria or Toronto or St. John’s or Winnipeg, the tribunal showed us that we all can have a role to play in supporting African grandmothers.

Judy Curran is co-ordinator of Victoria Grandmothers for Africa.

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