For the past two weeks I have been learning a lot about the HIV/AIDS epidemic here in Botswana. The first thing that I have learned is that this work utilizes just as many, if not more, acronyms than the Canadian public service. In fact, I am finding learning Setswana easier than the multitudes of acronyms. The acronyms mostly related to the government ministries, sectors, councils, funding agencies, non-profit organizations. The list is endless. I carry a two page cheat sheet with me at all times so that I can check it from time to time to make sure that I am understanding who the stakeholders are and how the conversation reflected them.
The other thing that I am currently grappling with is a much bigger issue. From the materials that I read prior to coming here it was clear that there was significant gender work involved with my duties. It is not my main focus but it is definitely a focus. For those that know me, they can vouch for the fact that I bring the gender perspective (female and male) to almost everything that I do. Since my arrival I have had a couple of conversations about gender work with Oscar. He is concerned that perhaps I am intent on radically changing the paternalistic African culture. I have reassured him every time that I am not – I have someone who is constantly reminding me of the term “futility” and I have no god complex to think that I can undo thousands of years of culture. And frankly why would I want to?
No, what disturbs me and no doubt will be my futile exercise, but I pray not, is the repercussions of the work we (meaning funders and volunteers) are doing which are having negative ramifications on women across this beautiful country. It became crystal clear to me in Kasane and during this past week that as the efforts are made to educate and empower women to say no to sex or the use of a condom with their partner if they believe that there is a possibility of the partner being HIV positive the women are suffering because of it. While tremendous strides have been made to reach the female population and in some circumstances they are empowered enough to speak up. This empowerment in term is making them a victim of gender-based violence. They are being raped and beaten by their partners for standing their ground. Ironically by being raped the women have an even stronger probability of being infected as well as being traumatized. This deeply disturbs me that as a volunteer and part of the bigger National Strategy on the prevention of HIV/AIDS that we are advocating for and creating capacity to implement a prevention program that it in turns causes further suffering to those already victimized.
No matter what else I accomplish while I am here, I refuse to accept this impact and will do whatever I can to lessen the impacts of gender based violence. No doubt this will mean taking politically uncorrect stances in meetings and planning sessions as I apply gender based analysis to whatever is being advocated for or developed. I have no desire to change the patriarchal society of Africa but I deeply desire the prevention of gender based violence. Yes, the prevention and elimination of HIV/AIDS is a noble cause and one that I will work very hard at. But I will never sacrifice the safety of a woman in order to implement a national strategy. How I will deal with this in the coming days and months I don’t know. All that I can tell you is that no matter what, the issue and implications will never be out of my thoughts.