A new feminism

I am perplexed. In the past few years, I have grappled with why the post-1996 women’s movement (in whatever way one wants to define it) has not taken up HIV/Aids in South Africa as a flaming, life-and-death issue. If women’s voices had been heard more loudly and coherently and more pressure had been put on the government and civil society early on, they might have responded to the Aids crisis with urgency and wisdom.

My puzzlement deepens when I participate in feminist forums and encounter the women’s movement’s apparent complacency on HIV. I observe how activities for the 16 Days of Activism campaign and World Aids Day get under way and I wonder gloomily about the rest of the days that make up 2006, 2010, 2015.

My starting point for any gender issue in South Africa is that HIV hangs over it like a dark, menacing cloud and that all discussions about gender should include a focus on HIV. Yet it would seem few feminists are thinking along similar lines. And I cannot fathom why.

Statistics on HIV/Aids are overwhelming. Feminists in particular should be propelled into furious action. There should be symbolic citizens’ arrests of the Minister of Health Manto Tshabalala-Msimang while she unsuspectingly tends her vegetable garden. Gender and HIV issues should be raised at every dining and boardroom table and public officials, politicians, trade unions and employers should be challenged on what they are doing to reduce the risk of HIV to women. Marches, pickets and rallies should take place whenever President Thabo Mbeki professes that he has never met someone with HIV.

But feminist voices are sadly absent. In this silence, a number of possibilities present themselves.

Is it possible that feminists may not be fully aware of the links between HIV and their commitments? Are the close and devastating relationships between HIV and gender-based violence, the private/public division, access to justice, land, politics and social security not fully appreciated? Or are feminists under the dangerous misapprehension that the struggle on HIV/Aids is over?

Now that South Africa has public-sector programmes on anti- retroviral treatment, prevention of mother-to-child transmission and post-exposure prophylaxis after rape, has attention on HIV/Aids become unnecessary?

Do feminists believe that HIV/Aids is too “political”, too “controversial”? I particularly wonder about the Commission for Gender Equality’s and the Human Rights Commission’s lack of vigour in engaging government obstreperousness on gender and HIV.

It might be worthwhile to call for and cultivate a form of “Aids feminism”. Instead of approaching HIV through the lens of general feminist concerns, the pandemic and its amplified effects on women should be foregrounded. Progressive Aids advocacy and activism should be initiated and supported, and enthusiastic endeavours to engender mainstream Aids responses should be evident at all levels.

The underlying problems of Aids are obviously of general feminist concern and advancing women’s empowerment will, of course, diminish the impact of HIV. But this focus is too oblique and not nearly enough.

The Aids crisis necessitates a blazing, outspoken feminist response that includes challenging the slow implementation of anti- retrovirals, the preposterous levels of gender-based violence, the deficient care of rape survivors, the far-reaching implications of the prevention of mother-to-child transmission programme and the hopelessly inadequate prevention responses to the ways in which young women and girls contract HIV.

Perhaps, if we work hard and are lucky, when the “16 days” are over on December 10, their momentum may have spawned an Aids-feminist movement that will push the HIV/Aids agenda forward with fervent vigour.

Marlise Richter is a researcher at the Aids Law Project at Wits University and is a volunteer with the Treatment Action Campaign

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