This is What Change Looks Like

Changing social norms is one of the hardest things to do. Students, community leaders and traditional healers are working together. It's making a difference! Violence against women is decreasing in these communities. So is the rate of HIV infection.

By Robyn Pardy

In March 2007, my life changed forever when I traveled to Southern Africa as part of a partnership program between Oxfam Canada, the AIDS Committee of Newfoundland and Labrador (ACNL), the Matabele AIDS Council (MAC) and the Musasa Project, both of Zimbabwe, and the Morija Printing Works of Lesotho.

I'm a widowed mother of two, living and coping with HIV and AIDS in St. John's. Like many people, I've often felt that I've lived my life in a little fishbowl not really seeing what's happening outside.

I arrived in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe with Fran Keough of the ACNL and Linda Ross of Oxfam Canada. After a brief meeting with our partners from MAC and Musasa, we were whisked off to rural communities to see first hand how people are dealing with gender-based violence and poverty -- two of the realities fuelling the AIDS pandemic around the world. MAC and Musasa compliment each other. Together, they are working to change social norms that perpetuate violence, the spread of HIV and the stigma and neglect that cut short the productive lives of people infected.

Changing social norms is one of the hardest things to do, but I saw it happening. Students, community leaders and traditional healers are working together. It's making a difference! Violence against women is decreasing in these communities. So is the rate of HIV infection.

I couldn't help but notice the smiling faces and enthusiasm beaming from people -- something I didn't expect given Zimbabwe's political and economic crises. People have lost so many loved-ones to AIDS, so quickly. Overcoming the monumental obstacles they face every day is a true testament to their spirit and perseverance.

Meeting with peer educators, counselors, home-based care-givers, AIDS orphans and people living with the disease, gave me an entirely new perspective on 'human spirit.

AIDS Education - ZimbabweIn the Bulilima District, Tshankwa Ward, I was astonished to see dramas in the local schools about gender-based violence and marital rape! Given the reality many married women face, this was a powerful message. I wondered if dramas on such sensitive issues would be done in our schools back home?

It's not all positive. In these communities, people walk for hours in searing heat just to see a doctor and receive their Anti-Retroviral Drugs (ARVs), no matter how sick they are. The standard of care in Zimbabwe is different than in Canada. (In Canada, treatment for HIV infection usually starts when CD4 counts a kind of white blood cell fall below 500 copies/ml. In Zimbabwe, the standard for treatment is 200 copies/ml.) At that level, people are most at risk for opportunistic infections. I was shocked!

On any given day, I would be challenged by what HIV and AIDS patients endure here. Why is the standard so different?

HIV isn't just a health issue. It's environmental, social and economic. It's not just about wearing a condom. The belief that sex with a virgin cures HIV encourages men to rape young children and the practice of widows being passed on to brothers-in-law exacerbates the spread of the disease. It's important to break down the myths surrounding the disease.

In Lesotho, I met Lindy Gill who manages the Morija Printing Works. Lesotho is a small country surrounded by South Africa that suffers the same high rate of HIV infection endemic to its neighbours.

Lindy is determined to have the people she lives and works with be as healthy and productive as possible. She had the vision to develop a workplace HIV and AIDS policy for the printing works and for the broader community, setting up counseling services and support for people living with the disease. They have established gardens and small livestock projects to provide people's nutritional needs as well as to generate income.

With our partnership, the printing work has obtained the contract to produce the Project Red boxes for Motorola Cell Phones, creating jobs in this community of 700. Project Red, initiated by Bono of the rock group U2, gives a portion of all sales to the Global Fund for HIV and AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis in Africa.

I was honored and humbled to be involved in this partnership. I was glad to share my story in hopes that it would break the silence for others. My experiences have made me feel very different. I feel now that I'm part of a family I never new I had.