by Michele Leight
Thanksgiving does not seem
like the time to think about AIDS around the world, and yet through
the joy and the laughter, the full stomachs and abundance, there
lurks the reality that there are millions who are endangered,
and many more millions who have already succumbed to the worst
epidemic mankind has ever faced - comparable only to the plague,
and that was way back in days of yore, when media did not exist,
the information highway was inconcievable, and medical technology,
medications and treatments for diseases were unknown.
On November 26th, 2003, the
eve of Thanksgiving, a report in The New York Times
report entitled "Spread of AIDS Fast Outpacing Response"
quoted Dr. Peter Piot, Director of UNAIDS:
"Measured against the
scale of the global epidemic, the current pace and scope of the
world's response to AIDS falls far short of what is required."
Dr. Piot is right on target. None of us are doing enough - and
that includes ordinary citizens everywhere the epidemic is exploding
- like India and Russia.
In India, a land of 1.2 billion
people, a tragedy is playing out for women of all backgrounds
- but mostly the poor - as denial replaces immediate action to
empower them against a ruthless virus lurking in their own bedrooms.
Political will alone will not overcome age-old practices and taboos
that disenfranchize females. Indian society as a whole will have
to weigh the pros and cons of these outmoded practices and the
inevitable havoc that rampant HIV/AIDS will wreak as families,
communities and ultimately the nation as a whole succumbs to this
corrosive disease. Societies do not change overnight. But for
India, every day lost in discussion without action will only empower
the virus. It is the women who need to be empowered and their
standards raised. Only then will the virus lose.
Russia is facing an alarming
rise in HIV/AIDS infections. As for political will from Russian
leadership, according to Dr. Piot, Russia has not made the political
commitment other countries have made against the disease, "It
budgets only a few million dollars for AIDS and still deals with
it at the level of the deputy minister of health." This is
in sharp contrast to Indian leaders, who were so alarmed at their
HIV/AIDS statistics that they called for an unprecedented nationwide
conference on HIV/AIDS this year. However, "The spread of
AIDS to about 4.5 million Indians is the biggest concern is Asia"
said Dr. Piot.
So why is it, in this time
of medical and technological advancement and prosperity in developed
nations that so many go uncared for around the globe, left to
the ravages of a disease for which medications and treatments
exist? Why is there this devastation by disease when we are supposedly
now "civilized" and "advanced?" Why is it
that this situation exists when many of us are equipped with democratic
governments elected by the people who promise to work for the
people who elected them - as opposed to kings and medieval despots
of olden times who did not what happened to their citizenry as
long as their coffers were full and life was filled with their
own pleasure? What has happened to "humanity?"
As Secretary of State Colin
Powell said at the United Nations Special Session on HIV/AIDS
after he heard the most recent global AIDS statistics: "AIDS
is more devastating than any weapon of mass destruction."
So why are ordinary citizens and world leaders not doing more
to help the afflicted?
Panoramically observed across
the globe, the HIV/AIDS statistics tell us that those of us blessed
with health and wealth are greedier as individuals and more pathologically
selfish as wealthy nations, less compassionate and less interested
in equal rights for women than at any time in our history. With
few exceptions, this pattern is repeated round the globe - even
in the United States in minority communities - where we have state-of-the-art
media, awareness groups, tratment and care facilities and sex
education in schools.
If this seems like a harsh
way of looking at life, it is purely from the perspective of that
segment of the world that is socio-economically deprived who must
believe we have abandoned them as they languish and decay from
HIV/AIDS. Theirs is a different Thanksgiving Day and a bleak holiday
season. For the infected poor in developing nations the future
holds little hope. Most of them will never see a plump, juicy
turkey or a large quantity of food of any kind - let alone experience
the mercy of anti-retroviral medications - because they are poor.
Poverty kills the diseased poor much faster than the diseased
rich. Meagre meals offering little nutrition aid the virus. There
is something about unmedicated HIV/AIDS that is more morally challenging
than almost any other kind of suffering - because the medications
exist to give relief. It is as if the balance sheet of the world
has written the HIV-infected poor off as a loss. The balance sheet
is focused on prevention. One has only to see the full and dignified
life anti-retroviral medications bring to people living with HIV/AIDS
to understand how different this global picture can be.
Fifty percent of the total
global AIDS infections exist in women. Included in the statistics
for women, one must also think of the children who are born to
them. In India, the HIV/AIDS statistics show a staggering 40 percent
of predominantly monogomous women - through heterosexual transmission.
Women everywhere are taking the hardest hit as HIV infects faithful
wives and partners, "whose only crime was to have sex with
their husbands" said Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the
Built into the global statistics
for women and new HIV/AIDS infections is the absence of laws that
protect them, no control whatsoever over their own bodies as a
human right and abysmally low living standards. Poverty plays
its role, but upon close scrutiny, it is attitudes and customs
like arranged marriages without prior HIV-testing and the absence
of rights and laws protecting women that are fanning the flames
of India's blazing epidemic. Pre-AIDS, such practices did not
pose a health threat to women: now, with HIV/AIDS present, a traditional
arranged marriage can "set women up" for the inevitability
of HIV infection. For those without access to anti-retroviral
medications this will progress to full-blown AIDS.
Heterosexual transmission between
partners or from husband to wife is now the primary cause of the
proliferation of the disease in India. Many believe that India,
with 4.5 million infected, now has the highest HIV/AIDS infection
rate in the world, though officially India lags half a million
behind South Africa. Estimates by American, British and other
global healthcare agencies have put the number of infected Indians
at nearer 8 to 10 million in recent weeks, depending on which
paper you read. Reading the global statistics for HIV/AIDS today,
sex might be viewed as a potentially lethal commodity even within
the home nowadays - everywhere in the world - not just in developing
On November 19th, 2003, Maxine
Frith reported from Madras, India (http://www.
"When she was 21, Kosulya
Periasamy was forced into marriage with a man she did not like.
She was told she had to marry him because his family owned land
that supplied water to her father's factory. What Kosulya was
not told was that her husband was HIV/positive. He knew he was
positive and his family knew too. I think my father suspected
because he knew what my husband was like, but the marriage was
all to do with money.'"
Kosulya inevitably became HIV/positive
and her story is tragically common in India. One must ask where
are the laws for women like Kosulya requiring a mandatory blood
test for STDS and HIV of a proposed spouse prior to marriage?
Without such laws, backed up by the right of the woman to the
denial of marriage if the man is HIV/positive, these women are
facing a death sentence on a daily basis.
AIDS is at present an incurable
disease and anti-retrovirals are not likely to reach poor women
in developing nations like India anytime soon. It is not rocket
science to conclude that it is criminal for accomplices to force
the Kosulya's of this world to marry when they know the proposed
husband is HIV/positive. Murder is a harsh word, but murder it
is by any other name if the marriage is knowingly and wilfully
enforced when HIV is present in the man - no matter what "spin"
is put on it.
Similar practices go on in
many nations in different disguises; in Africa, for example, boys
have been initiated to become men by bedding a virgin. Such practices
only change with education and awareness - and respect for women.
Many communities did or do not have information about the dangers
of HIV/AIDS, or the inclination in their menfolk to change risky
sexual behavior. In Africa, a continent is being decimated by
a deadly virus and most of the beautiful, smiling men, women and
children cannot afford the anti-retorviral meds that will turn
their suffering around - offering them dignity and a prolonged
life. A recent New York Times article reported that families
are having to choose who shall live and who shall die because
of the high cost of the drugs. South Africa has begun dispensing
AIDS medications to their infected citizens after years of denial
- during which time millions have died tragically. Wealthy nations
have the money and the drugs: they should be dispensed without
delays, red-tape, stone-walling and an eye on profit margins.
Delay = Death
While Kosulya might be an Indian
woman who acquired the AIDS virus unknowingly from her husband,
her plight is not uncommon in other countries around the world.
In Latin America, women have few rights and remain unequal with
men within their society. Rape within marriage is legal in India,
as in many developing nations, even if the husband is HIV/positive,
and domestic violence is largely yawned at.
by Rory Kennedy, sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,
features the impact of the AIDS epidemic in Russia, Brazil, India,
Africa and Thailand and exists as a feature-length film (113 minutes),
a 5-part television series consisting of half-hour episodes aired
on HBO in the US this past June), a 42-minute educational version,
with accompanying educational materials (classroom workbooks,
a teacher's guide, and a poster), and a 20-minute policymakers'
version. Additionally, there is a traveling photo exhibition,
a photography book and a website for the "Pandemic Project."
If you are interested in any of these additional materials and
versions of the film, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
or call Moxie Firecracker Films at 212-620-7727. There is an illustrated
book, published by Umbrage Books, with essays by Kofi Annan, Rory
Kennedy, Nadine Gordimer, Nan Richardson and Jeffrey Sachs. The
accompanying CD "Pandemic: Music for a World Without AIDS"
is a wonderful compilation of world music featuring such varied
artists as Orcestra Marrabenta Star de Mozambique, "Giant
Leap,"Ravi Shankar and Phillip Glass,Gilberto Gil, Caetano
Veloso and Euge Groove - amongst other artists. Detailed information
may be obtained at their website: www.moxiefirecracker.com. The Moxiefirecraker Film Company
is based in New York City.
features a young Indian couple who are in love and subject to
all the pressures ascribed to rural community life in India -
including arranged marriages. Their marriage was arranged and
they thought nothing of it - this was the way it had been for
centuries and neither partner questioned it.
Nagaraj, the husband featured
in the film, was a trucker and had seen prostitutes before and
even while married to his wife and had become infected with HIV/AIDS.
Unlike many men who are secretive, the moment Nagaraj knew of
his infection, he told his doctor and his wife. He did not want
unsafe sex with her and in fact abstained from sex at the peak
of his infection and took anti-retroviral medications. But his
wife insisted they have a baby together - even if he was
sick and might infect her. "What is life without a child
to pass on to the world?" was how this young wife saw the
situation. No child to leave behind was worse than disease in
her mind, because communities in rural India bestow value and
prestige only to the woman with babies - the barren woman is a
non-person, without stature and looked down upon.
Nagaraj was not convinced that
having a baby was the right course; his health was worsening and
fear loomed in his eyes, but for his wife's sake he gained all
the information he could from his doctor. Everyone, including
the in-laws (who play an enormous role in marriages in India),
agreed that the risk of transmitting HIV/AIDS to the baby would
be reduced by caesarean section at the time of birth. The HIV
virus can gestate undetected for years. If a spouse is infected,
the partner must be tested regularly even if they are not HIV-positive
on the first test.
What was apparent throughout
the filming of the Indian couple was how little control the young
wife had over most of the decisions that involved her own body
- except the one to have a child. Ironically, the first time she
asserts herself, she may well be risking her life. Clearly this
young wife had no conception of how lethal the HIV/AIDS virus
is. And even if she did, chances are she would have had the baby
anyway. Her status and worth - and security - is linked to a baby
in her own mind. Until this thinking changes, the virus will spread.
The change must come from society before it can grow in the woman.
The baby was born beautiful
and healthy, and all the while the camera panned to Navaraj's
anxious, doomed eyes and gaunt face and body. The viewer was left
with a feeling of hope as the Indian segment ended with grandparents
cradling the newborn, and glimpses of an idyllic thatched hut
and palms in the beautiful village - like the thousands of villages
that dot India - where the small family had made their home.
Navaraj died shortly after
the film was made; it is not known where his wife and child are
because she has moved from the idyllic hut since her husband's
death - but mother and child were last heard of doing well.
Switching continents, in a
recent story in The New York Times Magazine, it was revealed
that homosexuals and bisexuals in some of America's large cities
lead double lives on the "low down" as husbands and
partners; they harbor secret male relationships from their wives
and parents because they risk ostracization within their own families
and communities. These men are proudly "macho" and do
not wish to be confused with the stereotypical effeminate gay
male. They are a far more lethal commodity to women, however,
as many of these men do not practice safe-sex with their male
or female partners. The statistics for new HIV/AIDS infections
in the United States have increased alarmingly in recent years,
especially in black and hispanic communities. Most of the men
on the "low down" are supposedly black, but the sharp
rise in homosexual hispanic infections (26 percent) points to
the same trend. Family and community pressure is not exclusive
The more one reads the statistics
and trends in the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the more the family comes
into focus as a player in the future proliferation - or demise
- of the virus.
Meera Nair's film "Monsoon
Wedding" highlights pedophilia and incest within an Indian
family - a brave and welcome move from a film maker who does not
flinch from subtly exposing the often family-generated violation
of women and girls perpetrated in her beloved country - and around
It is no coincidence that "Monsoon
Wedding" resonated to great acclaim around the world. Women
from California to Kentucky, London and South Africa how told
me how much they loved the movie - because they had similar stories
to tell within their own communities or families. Stories of abuse,
violation, rape and pedophilia. Clint Eastwood's film "Mystic
River," (adapted from the book by Dennis Lehane), gets inside
the tortured mind of a grown man (played by Tim Robbins) who was
raped by pedophiles as a young boy. The experience marked him
for life. Unlike other films on the subject of sex with minors,
this film and story chases the legacy of pedophilia and rape to
the bitter end, concluding that for the very young victim the
damage is irreparable - except for the lucky ones who have access
to therapy and somehow survive the trauma. It is a "must-see"
film for all parents.
"Mystic River" deals
with rape between adult pedophile strangers and a young child
- but stop just for a moment and imagine the legacy and damage
if the violater is a member of your own family? Pedophilia is
prevalent in all cultures, as is incest and rape within and outside
families - and more common in the United States than one would
think. Just watch Oprah from time to time to get a dose of reality.
Than heaven for Oprah. She had done more to spread the word on
pedophilia, rape and incest than anyone in America. Information
like this sends out a flare to those who are most at risk - a
warning to be vigiliant. A red light should go off in the mind
of everyone in the family when something is going on at home that
is not normal. This does not only mean females. In
"Mystic River" the victim is a young male - a reminder
that sex abuse is perpetrated on boys as well.
What is even more threatening
today about rape, incest and sex with minors is that they carry
with them the possible threat of HIV infection. In situations
where women and children have no access to anti-retroviral medications
due to poverty, it is tantamount to a slow death sentence. In
the West we live with the expectation that there are cures, medications
or stabilizers for every illness. Illness iteself is often percieved
as weakness - something to be "over come" or "fought."
Even with AIDS medications, the treatment for HIV/AIDS takes its
toll and is no joy ride. In countries where medications are a
dream for the poor, there is little expectation of reilef or cure.
There is resignation and acceptance, because that is how it has
been for generations and centuries. It is a different mind-set.
This too should change. Less acceptance, more activism, more protest
in the streets is what it takes.
"Mystic River" portrays
the effect of the crime of rape against a young boy within the
context of small-town America, where townsfolk knew one another
on a first-name basis. The boy who was violated started out on
the lowest rung of the emotional and socio-economic ladder in
his community because he did not appear to have a "traditional"
family comprised of a mother or father - just "many uncles."
Imagine what is going on in
our own cities in the United States - and in conuntries around
the world - where there are more and more young children and teens
facing split homes and divorced parents, and fewer adults to care
for and supervise them because they all must work? No one is immune
to the threat of HIV/AIDS - not even in the United States - any
longer. Defeating the AIDS virus will require a major change in
attitude in males especially, and it does not seem to matter which
hemisphere or country they inhabit. In many developing nations,
sex with minors or young women of poor or low-caste backgrounds
is not even considered immoral, let alone a criminal offence.
But it violates them and should be unlawful. It is these countries
that are experiencing the sharpest rises in HIV/AIDS. This is
not a co-incidence, it is a repeating pattern.
In a case reported in the New
York media this year, a Bronx man sodomized several young neighborhood
boys and was charged with murder - not rape - because he infected
the youths with HIV. He was taking HIV medications at the time
of the rapes and therefore knew he was most likely infecting the
boys. It was a wilfull and deliberate act that threatened their
lives - no different to the injustice perpetrated upon Kosulya
in India by her husband and her in-laws.
The Bronx boys will receive
anti-retroviral medications, but those who are sexually violated
in developing nations may not be so fortunate. Low-caste women
in India are often forced into prostitution, where HIV infection
is a daily threat. For married or single women in India, seeking
health care is difficult when she is not allowed to leave home
unescorted. Again, societal pressure. Women must push themselves
out of the dangerous confines of outmoded values, because they
threaten her life. Women in developing nations need to rebel more
and end the "victim" cycle they have lived in for so
long. Of course this is not easy
The gay community rebelled
in the United States: they did not sit back and take the negative
attitudes and insults of society around them. The did not accept
victimization and marginalization complacently. Through organizations
like "ACT-UP, "they fought back with their money, their
activism and their belief in human dignity - which they insisted
loudly exists no matter what the gender/sexual orientation of
Far too much stress is placed
on sex in all societies - through promiscuity, denial or judgemental
attitudes. At the end of the day, if a person is a good "humane"
being - who harms no one - then who are we to sit in judgement
as to how they should act or be treated? Every day there are horrific
stories of heterosexual parents who abuse their children for no
apparent reason. Many hetero-sexuals do not have happy
homes: they beat and batter wives and hurl abuse. They murder
and rape. If a husband infects a wife with HIV/AIDS, or even abuses
his teenage daughter - it is somehow not as incriminating in the
eyes of the world as the sexual orientation of gay men. The same
goes for prostitutes and wives. Prostitutes are used by men who
have wives and children at home: but it is the prostitutes who
incurr the wrath of society, not the men who use them and cheat
on their families. It is the prostitutes who are stigmatized.
The same goes for wives with husbands who infect them.This
is why HIV/AIDS is spreading.
Things are even worse for women
in developing nations, where there are no laws to protect them
- at all. According to a recent (British) Voluntary Services
Overseas report, called "Gendering AIDS," women's low
status and lack of rights have left them vulnerable to infection
regardless of their own behavior. Married men openly visit prostitutes,
putting their wives at risk for infection. Even if a woman knows
her husband is infected, it can be impossible to insist he practices
safe sex. If they leave their husbands, women in effect forfeit
their rights to the marital home and the dowry they brought with
them. As increasing numbers of HIV/positive men are dying in India,
young widows are finding themselves forced out of their homes
by their husband's relatives.
The VSO report concludes that
while the Indian government has begun to respond to the AIDS epidemic,
it has done little to improve women's rights. Discussions about
condoms are banned in schools and colleges, despite the fact that
many young girls are married by the time they are sixteen. Girls
are traditionally not supposed to know anything about sex or contraception
before they marry. How can any nation hope to conquer HIV/AIDS
in this scenario? It will be utterly impossible to do so.
There is good news as well.
Kosulya took action and fought back because she was so disgusted
and outraged at the predicament in which she found herself. She
set up her own support group, the Positive Women's Network, and
became the first woman in India to go public about having the
virus. From India, Maxine Frith writes:
"Three years ago she (Kosulya)
was critically ill with HIV-related infections. Thanks to AIDS
drugs, she is now healthy and will travel to London for the launch
of the VSO report.'When I first got ill, I was very angry at my
husband. I thought I was going to die because AIDS meant death,
and life had no meaning,' she said. 'Now I can look forward to
the future. I like to look after my nieces. I want India to change
for them," said Kosulya, now empowered by action.
Information saves lives, so
for all those out there who have the power to inform women like
Kosulya who are endangered on a daily basis, it is a matter of
life and death to get information about the HIV virus to them
as fast as possible. There is no light at the end of the tunnel
for them - they way things are going, very few of them will see
anti-retroviral medications in their lifetime.
On the home front, the AIDS
situation in the United States is not too good either. On Thursday,
November 27th, 2003, Thanksgiving Day in America, the following
headline for an article by Anahad O'Connor appeared in The
New York Times: "H.I.V.
Infections Continue to Rise: Troubling data on the AIDS virus
for Hispanics and Gays."
A CDC (Center for Disease Control)
Study looked at data from 29 states - not including New York and
California - that included a confidential system that was started
in 1999. The study found that the number of new HIV cases diagnosed
in the United States is continuing to climb: the most significant
rise has been among Hispanics (up 26 percent) and gay and bisexual
men (up 17 percent).
The other statistics are interesting
as well: for example, exposure to infection through heterosexual
contact is 35.2 percent (that is transmission between men and
women), and injected drug use at 17.1 percent.
As to race and ethnicity: blacks
(non-hispanics), still make up the largest portion of new cases
at 55.4 percent; white (non-hispanic) 31.3 percent (up 8 percent),
and as mentioned before hispanic at 11.5 percent (up a staggering
Men represent 70.5 percent
of total US infections, and women 29.5 percent - not a comforting
statistic. The report indicated that HIV infections may be even
worse than the data indicates because states with the highest
populations and possibly the highest rates of infection, like
New York and California, were not included in the study.
Why, one wonders, were these
two states omitted from the study, as they have always had the
highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS? According to CDC statistics posted
on their website, New York has the highest number of people living
with HIV/AIDS than in any other American city.
"From 1999 through 2002,
the number of new HIV cases soared by 26 percent among Hispanics
and by 17 percent among men who have sex with men, while the increase
in new cases over all for that period was 5.1 percent," according
to the study: "Because more effective treatments are available,
there seems to be a perception, particularly in the gay community
that HIV is a manageable disease." said Dr.Robert Janssen,
director of the division of HIV and AIDS prevention at the centers.
"Most of the increase in the Latino community is due to men
having sex with men. I think the disease just doesn't have the
fear that it once carried."
According to the report by
Anahad O 'Connor, other groups also showed increases in the rate
"African Americans still
make up the largest portion of new cases, at 55 percent, while
whites accounted for 8 percent of the new cases, the study found.
The numbers for men in general went up 7 percent. Whether the
study's findings reflect higher rates of HIV infection is difficult
to say because some cases are not diagnosed immediately. But if
that was a factor, Dr. Janssen said, the study would have detected
more cases that had progressed to AIDS. Instead, rates of testing
have stayed about the same and many of the recently detected HIV
infections were caught in the earlier stages. "We're seeing
an increase in people with HIV but not necessarily an increase
in simultaneous diagnoses of HIV and AIDS," he said.
According to Mr. O'Connor,
the new findings reinforce the notion that there is a growing
sense of complacency among groups at the highest risk of contracting
the disease. Some experts say advances in AIDS treatments in recent
years could be undermining efforts to promote safe sex. The latest
figures might therefore reflect a more widespread willingness
to engage in risky behaviors.
Dr. Jeffrey Laurence, program
consultant of the American Foundation for AIDS Research in New
York (www.amFAR.org) said: "Even among populations
targeted for outreach, it's as if people think they can become
infected because there is a pill to take care of them. There needs
to be a stronger message that it's not a picnic to be on these
drugs and that even when you're being treated you can still transmit
Experts say that efforts to
promote AIDS prevention to convey the gravity of the disease have
not reached Hispanics and other minorities. According to Dr. Laurence:
"Too often AIDS education programs rely on blanket messages
that are too weak to combat the widespread images of healthy,
resilient AIDS patients in drug advertisements.There is such a
striking disparity among Hispanics and blacks that we're obviously
not doing a good enough job of targeting them and conveying the
right idea. Here's a population that is not responding to the
messages we're sending. Perhaps it's because the message is getting
Or perhaps not honest enough
about the ravages of HIV AIDS? Maybe less placating, comforting
images of people with HIV/AIDS would help raise the fear factor
in the young especially:
"The young think they
are invincible" said Dr. Piot, Executive Director of UNAIDS,
in a recent interview, and the statistics back him up. The young
think they are invincible and immune to diseases like HIV/AIDS
and other STDs because we are not strident enough in our messages
I recently saw an anti-fur
advertisement plastered on a wall in Downtown New York that was
unforgettable. A beautiful celebrity held a skinned, dead baby
fox in her hands and the caption read: "HERE IS THE REST
OF YOUR FUR COAT." The image was horrible beyond belief but
it worked. I have since vowed never to wear fur. The Siberian
fox is facing extinction because we turn the other way and want
our fox coats. One wonders if women in certain countries will
be on the verge of extinction before their governments and citizens
decide to act. "Nice," comforting, confident messages
about HIV/AIDS designed not to upset anyone will not do the job
in preventing the spread of the HIV virus: unfortunately, "shock-tactics"
like the fur advertisement seem to have more effect. Whatever
works is the answer.
According to the CDC, 40,000
Americans are infected with HIV every year. More than 850,000
Americans are currently infected with HIV, the highest number
since the AIDS epidemic began in the 1980s. The statistics for
heterosexual and bisexual infections in the United States should
make us twice as vigilant for ourselves and for our children and
families as HIV/AIDS works its way through our society - and that
means both heterosexual and homosexual society. Most men do not
infect their wives deliberately - but, with all the love in the
world, it turns into a horror story all the same if there is limited
or no access to treatment because the family is not supportive
or active about seeking treatment for the infected person. It
is hard to accept that there is a moralistic hardness within families:
instead of sympathy, there is judgement and punishment through
ostracization or denial.
As I walked past the Metropolitan
Museum the day before Thanksgiving I found myself stunned into
silence by a conversation with a woman I had just met. I had been
telling her about the plight of women in developing nations who
were at risk for HIV/AIDS because of their husband's promiscuity
and unsafe sex.
Suddenly I felt her hand on
my arm and she told me with sadness of a college friend who had
become unknowingly infected with HIV/AIDS through her husband,
even though she had always been faithful to him. All three of
them went to Harvard, where her friend had met her husband, and
their future looked as rosy and as loving and bright as it was
possible to be back then in the glow of youth.
The friend with HIV/AIDS has
since died. Her husband had physically abused both her and her
daughter, who moved away from her father after the death of her
mother. The daughter also went to Harvard, and made a new life
for herself, independently. She is successfull, and has a good
job. The daughter saw her mother's demise and took control of
her life. She defeated the odds and did not repeat the pattern
- which can happen very easily in situations of domestic abuse
- because self-esteem suffers. Instead of accepting abuse, the
daughter fought abuse by moving away from it. There is no half-way-house
in situations of abuse. It is the abuser's survival or your own.
It must bring joy to the girl's mother wherever her spirit dwells
that her daughter is a survivor.
It was amazing to me that such
a story should come my way at the very time I was writing about
the dangers confronting women in India and developing nations
- in my mind I was dealing with a situation "over there"
in the East. I still feel the urgency of the woman's hand gripping
my arm. She wanted me to know this story to warn women in the
United States to keep up their guard. She is a film maker and
I urged her to remember the power of film and to use it to inform
those she wishes to protect. Efforts to get the word out helps
dispel sadness and brings hope to the disenfranchised - wherever
they are. We may not know the people we are helping, but that
does not matter in their journey to freedom. Those who are being
violated need to know we are there for them, thousands of miles
away, or just down the block in our own neighborhoods. Or within
our own homes. It is terrifying to be alone, threatened with abuse,
with children held hostage in return for any protest. For most
women, it requires enormous courage to get out of such situations.They
need real support, not complacency or admonitions to accept their
Like Kosulya and the young
daughter whose mother died at the hands of her father's HIV infection,
hopefully women around the world will take action from the seeds
of information they receive and change the status of womenkind
in their countries - for future generations of sons and daughters.
It is no picnic for a young son to sit by and watch a mother or
sister victimized. It causes life-long damage.
On a positive note! There is
encouraging news from two nations facing exploding HIV/AIDS epidemics:
The governments of China and
South Africa have begun giving free medications to their poor
citizens infected with HIV/AIDS after years of denial. This is
heartening.The power of the media to save lives and the power
of activism and the vote are immeasurable - they change the world.
Editorials and articles week after week increase public awareness
and alert leaders seeking votes. Public opinion matters: it is
powerful. Women in developing nations need to pay attention to
who they vote for- or against. If they don't yet have the vote,
it is time to protest.
The suffragettes began to protest
in earnest when they were jailed for civil disobedience - they
went on hunger strike. They embarrassed and shamed society by
chaining themselves to lamp posts and iron railings outside Downing
Street and highly visible locations. The Prime Minsiter and his
staff were forced to look out upon scenes that shocked them. With
all their power these men could not make the suffragettes stop
their "nonsense" and go back to their kitchen sinks
and babies - without a vote. In one case, a politician inside
a government building saw two police officers hauling off a suffragette
who he recognized as a relative; the beleaguered officers took
great care to pat down the lady's petticoats as she bared her
pantaloons in a valiant attempt to kick her way out of the situation
in which she found herself. In those days, displaying pantaloons
was really rebellious. Women have come a long way since then,
but that lady with her single act of defiance was part of the
"movement" to throw off the yoke of victimization of
Eventually, after multiple
self-cuffings by women to lamp posts and railings, laying down
in the roads in front of trucks in their fragile muslin blouses
and skirts, and highly publicized attempts to die by hunger-strike
(they were force-fed intravelously in jail), society could bear
it no longer. Women got the vote and their rights.
India must surely do more to
raise the standards of women: India is a forward-looking nation.
Although it has a "king size problem" according to Dr.
Peter Piot, he also believes India has the means in the commitment
of it's leaders to solve the problem. This is a good beginning.
India manufactures anti-retroviral medications and does not have
to import them and must surely be allowed to dispense these meds
to their infected poor without further delay.
The future of the HIV/AIDS
epidemic may well be in the hands of our men - everywhere in the
world. Wives love their husbands, and partners love one another.
Laws can be passed but ultimately the decision to accept responsibility
for a relationship or a family by avoiding risky sexual activity
cannot be mandated.
The world must work hard to
educate and nurture sons so that they and their future wives or
partners inhabit a brighter universe - free of ignorance, cheating
or abuse. Free of sexually transmitted diseases that can pass
to their children. Daughters must learn when they are young never
to accept violation of any kind. They can only learn that from
their families, schools and communities. They need to hear loud
and clear: "We support you. You are worth it. Believe in
Any adult family member who
turns away knowing that a child of either sex or anyone within
their family is being violated or abused is saying: "This
is OK." Abuse is not business as usual. It is a crime. It