"We're All Feminists": Solidarity with HIV Positive Women in West Africa
There we were in the middle of war-scarred Freetown, Sierra Leone discussing women's rights and HIV in West Africa. The meeting brought together women living with HIV and AIDS and other activists from seven countries (Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, The Gambia, and Ghana).
These women work in their communities to provide support to women living with HIV and to raise awareness of the virus. The majority of them work in local communities, far from capital cities. Many were attending such a meeting for the first time.
At the outset, we convenors were nervous. At what level do we pitch the dialogue? Should we talk about this? How will they take it? How do we keep the participants safe from prying eyes in the media, the hotel, and elsewhere - we were worried about confidentiality. We know that HIV & AIDS is highly stigmatized in many West African countries, more so if it is women who are infected. Freetown is also one of these small cities in which news travels at twice the speed of light, and is a place in which everyone knows someone who knows someone who knows you - or at least that's how it feels.
How would we protect the participants, particularly those from Sierra Leone, from this unwanted intrusion into their privacy, while at the same time showcasing the significance of their work? We were informed that such a meeting is a rare occurrence in Freetown and it would therefore generate much interest (both positive and negative). A long discussion took place on the eve of the workshop. We agreed on the usual confidentiality good practice measures: seek participants' permission for photographs, quotes, etc. In addition, a media 'policing' plan was carefully outlined and off we went to set it in motion.
Well, we needn't have agonized quite so much. The conference participants were adamant. Without exception they declared that they were ready to tell their stories. If we are to change attitudes, we have to set examples. We have to be open. In fact, some asked for the opportunity to share with the press their personal stories. I was humbled and deeply moved. In face of all the hostility and fear, these women (many of them young), chose to speak out and to accept the consequences of this decision.
Throughout the meeting, the women shared their experiences, pain, and triumphs with great generosity of spirit. I heard stories of rape and other forms of sexual abuse, of domestic violence, of abandonment, and of mental abuse. I heard tears of anguish, sorrow, and pain that came from a deep sense of loss and bereavement. I saw women overburdened with the responsibilities of care for their families and communities. I saw women tired, weary, seeking refuge.
And from these same women, I saw determination to live their lives with dignity - hence their insistence on sharing their stories and disclosing their HIV status - come what might. I witnessed strongly held faith, rooted firmly in the knowledge that change will come, and that it is they who will make change happen. I saw women draw on the deep reserves of their power within; the inner strength that echoed wherever they went - There is no stopping us now - we are here and we are here to stay, their every move seemed to say.
I saw them reach out to one another to give comfort, support, a shoulder to lean on - the sisterhood that cushions the blows of disappointment and adversity. I witnessed their deep sense of fun and mischief - they had some of the most scurrilous jokes and anecdotes. I marveled at their willingness to listen, to live, let live and let be. These women, who have been stigmatized and ostracized, denied space and voice, were ready to accept difference. Some were deeply religious, indeed were leaders in their respective religious institutions, but all readily embraced the notion that every woman has a right to live, love, and be as she chooses.
We asked, Who here is a feminist? We all are! They shot back. Why all this 'boku gramma' (beaucoup grammar - highfalutin language)? If you are working to support women, you are a feminist. What's the fuss? They wanted to know. This is what we do and who we are - feminists.
Their enthusiasm was infectious. The hotel staff also engaged. At first they were on the defensive: There is no such thing as HIV and AIDS in Sierra Leone. It is all a plot to stop us having more children! In our religion it is 'Haram' (forbidden) to use a condom! How do you enjoy yourself, all wrapped up? We heard all the standard responses of dismissal and denial. But with the patient, gentle, but firm explanations from the participants, this changed. There was genuine interest and keenness to find out. Can you talk to my wife? I think my wife and I should go for family planning. You are right, we should be careful - this can happen to anyone. There was genuine admiration and respect for these women for daring to speak out. In the end the hotel staff were sorry to see them leave.
I will never forget these amazing women. They have given me so much. One wonders, what it is this all about? What is it I am doing? The reminder came in the form of these really powerful sisters.
And for me, some other lessons and truths: Often, in putting together programs of this nature, we get locked into the business of thinking for our constituencies. And we do this in the name of protection - their personal safety, respect for their cultures and circumstances - all very necessary considerations. But there is an extremely thin line between protection and gatekeeping. We cross that line when we think for, rather than about, our constituencies. When we too readily assert, for example, statements like "We can't discuss this"; "Rural women cannot understand/will not accept this"; "This is not relevant to the lives of rural women"; "Young women don't need to know this"; "These are deeply religious women, they will not understand this"; and so on, we filter and censor information.
I wonder though, whose discomfort we are addressing. Is it our own? Do we conveniently hide behind our constituencies to mask our own fears and prejudices? We are especially likely to approach rural women in this way. More often than not in my experience, the so-called rural women have needed very little explanation of the issues many of us in the 'women's rights movement' consider controversial. We're often all dressed for a battle that does not materialize. The sisters in Freetown rejuvenated us with their readiness to accept and to be in dialogue. They asserted their right to do what they felt was right for them - and thank goodness, we, too, were open to listening.
We can't bring change if we don't cause a fuss; if we don't ruffle some feathers and make some people mad as hell. Sure, it's always best to try to bring potential opponents along with us as allies. So we must always work towards that end. But we can't give up the essence of what we stand for. So, sisters, we have to speak up and speak out. The results more often than not are oohhh so rewarding. Thanks to all my sisters in Freetown for reminding me.