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This article was published 24/11/2015 (1594 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When Hope Chigudu speaks, you listen.
Even over Skype, the 56-year-old feminist AIDS activist and co-founder of the Zimbabwe Women’s Resource Centre and Network is an incredible speaker, all fire and passion. There are many voices like hers. Voices of motivated, inspiring women who work on the front lines of the fight against AIDS in Africa. Voices we almost never hear from.
Sure, African women are talked about. "We are talked about in connection with poverty," Chigudu says. "We are talked about in connection with being battered. We are talked about in connection with overwork. But we are never talked about in terms of the change we are making in the world.
"We are not talked about as people who are educated and who can make a difference. We are not talked about as people who have a voice, and who know the world, and who are improvising all the time to make Africa what it is today."
And so, Chigudu, along with five other African women, is changing the narrative as part of Ask Her Talks, a speaker series put on by the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which works with grassroots HIV/AIDS organizations across Africa. The talk takes place tonight at the Metropolitan Event Centre. Tickets are $20.
Chigudu is blunt when she talks about her motivation for taking action: women she was close to were dying.
She’s now a respected consultant, working with women’s organizations in Africa and Asia, and has worked as an adviser for international agencies such as the African Women’s Development Fund and UN Women.
"What really keeps me going is seeing a woman who thought she was going to die, but now she is OK. She has been able to raise her children and support them. There is no better motivation than that."
In decades of work, she’s seen pain and struggle, but she’s also seen significant victories.
"I remember when we started hearing about HIV and AIDS, you wouldn’t even touch a person who is HIV positive, let alone get close to them. The stigma that was around people with HIV and AIDS, the fear, was so much. And we see that’s changing. It’s something that we need to celebrate. The stigma is still there, but you can see people standing up and saying, ‘I am HIV positive and I am not going to die tomorrow.’ "
She credits the work of African women with that shift. "Were it not for African women, I really think Africa would have perished. Women have supported other women — entire families, actually — in terms of nutrition, in terms of support, in terms of fighting for medicine and in terms of evoking the power women have. Saying, ‘No, I am not going to die.’ "
Kidist Belete is also speaking at Wednesday’s event. She is the founder and executive director of Developing Families Together in Ethiopia, a grassroots organization that focuses on HIV & AIDS prevention and care. DFT began in her living room in the early 2000s; since then, its programs have helped more than 10,000 people.
In particular, DFT has helped Ethiopian grandmothers, who often take care of children who have been orphaned by AIDS. And as Belete says, "There’s no pension for grannies in Ethiopia."
They continue to do hard physical labour well into their later years, and are forced to beg in the streets when they are no longer able to work. Belete’s organization provides them with the basics, as well as income-generating activities such as selling spices. "Now they have their own bank accounts," Belete says.
The pride in her voice is evident.
"The grandmothers’ lives are changing. Children are going to school regularly and eating twice or three times a day. The community has awareness," she says.
And this change is as a result of the work of women — and, in particular, poor women.
"It’s poor women who are outspoken," Chigudu says. "It’s poor women who fight for medicine. It’s poor women who fight for budgets for health. It’s poor women who fight for education. Rich people fear speaking out, but they benefit from the work poor women have done."
Their work is demanding and exhausting.
"All your time is spent supporting people, taking care of people, asking for money from donors, writing reports, writing proposals," Chigudu says.
We need to keep caring, and not just when World AIDS Day rolls around Dec. 1.
Chigudu says we must to listen to African women, to see them and the work they’re doing. She warns against complacency.
"We need to continue supporting initiatives and not reverse the gains we’ve made."
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.