In African AIDS crisis, desperation and lack of education
Psychologist and AIDS activist Kylie Fauth related her experiences with the tragic consequences of the raging AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa in an informal talk yesterday entitled "Women, Gender and AIDS."
According to Fauth, 34 percent of Zimbabweans are currently infected with HIV or AIDS, but the disease is still largely repressed. "People won't even say the word AIDS there. People won't get tested," Fauth said. "There is a terrible social stigma associated with AIDS."
For Fauth, involvement in AIDS awareness takes on a personal dimension -- her brother died of the disease 12 years ago. Since 2001, she has taken three trips to sub-Saharan Africa since 2001, visiting Zimbabwe and South Africa.
Her first two trips, in the spring of 2001 and 2002, were with an AIDS fact-finding delegation through the Global Exchange Human Rights Organization. "Our mission," she said, "was to go and bear witness and see things first hand and not just get some government's point of view."
These visits prompted Fauth to get involved in non-governmental organizations providing support for infected and at-risk Africans. She said, "I knew how bad it was -- I could speak to that -- but I needed to be part of a solution."
In February of 2002, Fauth returned to Zimbabwe, where she worked with the Girl Child Network, a support resource for sexually abused girls and young women. The network's primary mission, according to Fauth, is to "help empower girls."
At the moment, women in sub-Saharan Africa enjoy almost no sexual power in the home. "Wives cannot say 'no,'" Fauth said, "they can't even disagree with their husbands, so they have no way of keeping themselves sexually safe."
A major contributor to the AIDS epidemic, according to Fauth, is sexual violence, which is encouraged by the traditional belief that men can cure their HIV and AIDS cases by having sex with virgin girls. Fauth spoke of her experiences caring for babies and toddlers who had suffered serious injuries from gang rapes at the hands of men infected with AIDS.
"The traditional healers have huge power in the rural areas, and they as a group have promoted this belief," she explained. "There's a lack of education, and there's such desperation."
According to Fauth, condom use is almost unheard of in rural regions. Condoms are difficult to find and expensive, and in addition to this, Fauth notes that "the vast percentage of men will not use condoms at this point."
"One of the horrible offshoots of the AIDS epidemics is the number of AIDS orphans," said Fauth. While in Africa, she saw that children orphaned by the disease are often left to fend for themselves or live with as many as 12 other children in tiny homes. Fauth showed a computer slideshow of AIDS orphans behind her as she delivered her talk.
Fauth looks to the western world as a source for a solution to the problem of global AIDS. "I blame all of us," she said, "We've really averted our eyes to the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa."
Fauth cautiously applauded President Bush's recent bill offering $15 billion to fight AIDS in Africa, while criticizing Pennsylvania Representative Joseph Pitt for his amendment, which stipulates that one-third of the aid money must go to abstinence programs that do not support condom use.
Fauth encouraged the audience to contact members of Congress to support government aid to Africa and contact pharmaceutical companies to encourage them to provide free medication to poor countries suffering from the epidemic. "Without pain medication, people die excruciating deaths," she said.
"My experiences have led me to a place where I can't look away, and I urge to not look away," Fauth said. "Women, Gender and AIDS" was co-sponsored by the AIDS Workcrew and the Student Global AIDS Campaign.