By Nosipho Nyide and Kwandokuhle Njoli

Agenda Feminist Media (AFM) held a dialogue on the 18th July 2016 at Diakonia Centre, Durban. The dialogue dealt with the issues faced especially by women between the ages of 14-25, living with HIV/AIDS and in poverty. The topic was open-ended which made it easy for the dialogue’s 5 women speakers to link it with many other issues faced by young and old women both in South Africa and the rest of the world.

Janine Hicks, former Commissioner for the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) and chairperson of the Board of Directors of AFM, introduced Agenda as the host organization. “Agenda,” she said, “Has been in existence for 30 years. It continues to empower women through publishing their writings in the AFM journal and by holding feminist dialogues.”

In her introduction, John L Dube Chair of Rural Education, UKZN, Professor Lebo Moletsane, noted that the dialogue was taking place at the same time as the 21st International Aids Conference at Durban’s International Convention Centre. Entry to the Conference was expensive. This was ironical she said, as it meant that Conference discussions would not be heard by people whose plight – living in poverty and with HIV and AIDS, was the subject matter of the Conference.

Sthembiso Promise Mthembu, co-founder of the NGO “Her Rights Initiative”, spoke about being a feminist, politics, poverty, AIDS programmes, the shortcomings of calls to use condoms and cervical cancer. She said HIV requires a political solution. Most HIV-positive people she asserted, are black, uneducated, poverty stricken and marginalized.

Women’s bodies are objectified in the struggle against HIV/AIDS, said Mthembu. Women are projected as though they are responsible for the AIDS pandemic. Women were the focus of her work, as access to healthcare is very difficult for black, poor women who are HIV positive; they cannot afford private hospitals and face the harsh realities of an under-resourced health sector at public hospitals.

AIDS programmes Mthembu said, do not acknowledge they have failed women. Instead, they blame their failure by saying, for example, that young women are not following AIDS programmes. There is a tendency to portray women as either charity cases or victims. “Women need to be viewed as citizens as well,” Mthembu emphasised. She called for more policies that would cater for women. On the subject of cervical cancer, Mthembu acknowledged the positive move to provide young girls with a vaccine to prevent cancer. At the same time, she highlighted the need for a changed approach to cervical cancer by the healthcare sector.

Regarding the injunction to use condoms, Mthembu criticised the “popular narrative” that young women only were responsible for initiating the use of condoms. Her other concern was gender-based violence and the fact that battered and raped women are not reporting these. Victims who are HIV positive, face more difficulties in reporting rape: often the police ask whether the victim has disclosed her HIV status to the perpetrator. This makes the perpetrator appear the victim!

Ntokozo Madlala of Project Empower provided a brief history of her organisation’s work with young girls living with HIV and AIDS. She said their work had shifted to a more direct approach which involved working with young girls from informal settlements of Umlazi, Bhambayi and other areas.

“Black women are at the bottom scale of poverty,” Madlala said. The young girls she meets speak to her about the harsh judgement they face from nurses when they look for assistance in hospitals and clinics. So harsh is the treatment, especially from nurses, that the girls stop going to these places for help. This started a longer conversation about the bad treatment young girls receive from nurses when they seek help.

Madlala also spoke about the resentment young women feel towards their mothers who are absent from them during their growing years and the impact of such absence on them.

Tunkie Mhlambu a trainee of Project Empower briefed the dialogue about how young girls in the townships do not know their rights. She spoke about their difficulty in obtaining female condoms. “Most girls do not know how to use them,” Mhlambu said.

Rakiya Larkin, a Canadian intern, basically wanted South Africans to “stop thinking they are the only people affected by the AIDS epidemic because they are not.” South Africa has a better programme for dealing with AIDS she said. “Indigenous women of Canada are not well informed about HIV,” Larkin added.

She spoke about some of the difficulties she faces as an indigenous woman in Canada where she cannot purchase any land and has to carry an identification card that she renews every five years or face the prospect of being denied rights like access to healthcare.

During discussions, the dialogue agreed that the following were important issues that had come up:

• Access to resources to overcome HIV/AIDS, racism and poverty

• Harsh, unapproachable and judgmental nurses who intimidate girls who need their assistance

• The perception of AIDS as black people’s disease etc.

In conclusion, Janine called for empowering and effective responses to HIV/AIDS, more resource allocation for HIV/AIDS activism, and the need for institutional and governmental transformation in order to achieve substantive change.