Friday, 20 July 2007

Spotlight: African grandmothers bring stigma to Toronto

Spotlight: African grandmothers bring stigma to Toronto
HDNKey Correspondent Team

They came from far and wide. They came by foot, by train and finallyby plane. Over 300 grandmothers from 10 African countries, came tomeet their Canadian counterparts to share their stories of grief andpain over the loss of their children to the HIV epidemic.

In a unique meeting organised by the Stephen Lewis Foundation (SLF)in Toronto, a few days prior to the opening of the 16thInternational AIDS Conference, African grandmothers broke theirsilence over how stigma and discrimination undermines their efforts tohold families together and care for orphaned children.

"To be honest, I don't know whether my children have the HIVinfection or not. There is so much stigma attached to `thecondition', as it is called in my country, that my children areafraid to know their status," says Joyce Kajechi Gichuana fromNairobi,Kenya.

The soft-spoken, petite 63-year-old mother of three has sixgrandchildren of her own and has adopted six other children orphanedby the HIV epidemic in Kasarani district, in Nairobi, Kenya. Three ofthese children are HIV positive. "These children are doubly burdened.Not only are they orphans, but they also face stigma anddiscrimination [associated with HIV]. If they get love and compassionI know they will be able to overcome it."

Joyce is not the only one. Whether it is Martha Nduhi of Kenya, LeahMotlalepulc of South Africa, or Antonia Igres from Tanzania, theirstories are strikingly similar.

While statistics on the pandemic's effect on grandmothers are scarce,approximately 13 million children in sub-Saharan Africa have beenorphaned by AIDS – a higher number than the total of every childunder-18 in Canada, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Ireland combined. 40to 60 per cent of these orphans live in grandmother-headed households.

But how many people are aware of these statistics? More importantly,how many really care? Stephen Lewis, the United Nations Secretary-General's special envoy for HIV and AIDS in Africa, realised thatunless people living outside Africa experienced the emotionalbattering that he felt when he saw the bodies of people who had diedof AIDS related illnesses, being abandoned in the morgue by theirfamilies would they be unable to understand the trauma of HIV-relatedstigma.

The meeting between the African and Canadian grandmothers was a steptowards bridging this gap. "Grandmothers have stepped forward to carefor millions of children orphaned by AIDS. They have displayed thecourage to overcome their own feelings of helplessness and emotionalstress compounded by the stigma surrounding HIV. As caregivers, manyof them face discrimination, which makes finding support thatmuch harder. We wanted this meeting to help build a bond ofsolidarity between the grandmothers and let the African grandmothersknow that they were not alone in their grief," says Stephan Lewis.

But even Lewis did not anticipate the overwhelming support theAfrican grandmothers received from their Canadian counterparts duringtheir two-day meeting. The age-old African ways of speaking withoutwords broke down all communications barriers. They sang and danced,laughed and wept together. "We were afraid that language barrierswould separate us, and our capacity to help might be reduced tofundraising alone. This meeting has broken all barriers. AlthoughI was aware of their problems, I had never got involved in doingsomething about it. This meeting has given me an opportunity to actas their voice so that I can share their stories and raise awarenessabout HIV within my community. I believe that awareness can reducethe stigma surrounding the epidemic," contends Jo-Anna Page, a 63year-old Canadian grandmother.

While exchanges like this help in understanding HIV stigma anddiscrimination, it will need more than just one meeting to challengethe myths and misconceptions that continue to perpetuatediscrimination against people living with HIV (PLHIV). There has tobe a sustained multi-pronged effort by non-government organisationslike the SLF. But more importantly, there has to be greater politicalwill. Unless national governments demonstrate that they care forevery person infected by HIV by implementing laws that reduce stigmaand discrimination against PLHIV, it is unlikely that the children ofJoyce Gichuana, will ever want to know their status.

Swapna MajumdarHDN Key Correspondent, India

No comments: