older women have been left behind to care orphans

MASERU, Lesotho (WOMENSENEWS)–On a crisp winter afternoon, Khauhelo Raditapole slumped into a hotel lobby chair, the blue-and-white patterned wrap covering her hair slightly askew. Parliament was out of session, but the opposition lawmaker was still locked in discussions with colleagues about why Lesotho’s AIDS crisis continues to expand despite every effort to stop it.

AIDS came late to this small, mountainous southern African country, but today Lesotho has one of the world’s highest HIV infection rates. About 30 percent of adults are HIV-positive and each year, despite educational campaigns, the number of infected continues to creep upward. Recent surveys have shown people continue to put themselves at risk despite widespread knowledge about the disease.

“If you look at behavior change, it hasn’t changed that much at all. It is worrying,” said Raditapole, a former health minister and pharmacist who now chairs Lesotho’s Parliamentary Forum HIV/AIDS Committee.

“Why, despite so much investment both in resources and human time, why is it that we don’t seem to be succeeding in reversing HIV infection?” she asked. “Where have we gone wrong? What do we need to do?”

For Raditapole and many other African women engaged in the fight against HIV-AIDS, much of the answer lies in improving women’s rights. More and more African women fighting HIV-AIDS on the continent have come to the realization that women without political, financial and social rights are, in most cases, unable to resist demands for sex or even negotiate for practices that would protect their health.

Joining Forces

In recent years, Raditapole has joined forces with women from across Lesotho’s political spectrum in a battle to change the legal framework the country places around women. It is slow work, but the women are beginning to make some headway.

The country’s new sexual offenses law, passed in 2003, sets harsh penalties for rape, incest and sexual relations with a child. It also requires rapists to take an HIV test and makes rape by a person who knows they are HIV-positive a capital offense.

Legislators are also hard at work on the Married Persons Bill. Under Lesotho law and custom, married women are legal minors. The draft law, which is expected to go before Parliament soon, would give women equal control over marital property and end restrictions that require women to attain their husbands’ permission before opening a bank account or taking out a loan.

“We still have old people with very traditional beliefs and sometimes these things are hard for them,” said Raditapole. But in the era of AIDS, she said, many long-held customs must change.

Lesotho is still largely rural and heavily influenced both by traditional customs and the Catholic Church, which is the country’s dominant faith. Yet it is also the only country in Africa that has more educated women than men, a legacy of more than a century of migrant labor that took hundreds of thousands of the country’s men away to toil in South Africa’s mines.

Women in Ministries and Organizations

While the ranks of female politicians like Raditapole remain thin, Lesotho’s ministries and nongovernmental organizations are thick with women leading the fight against AIDS. The top civil servant in the Ministry of Health is a woman, as is the director of the country’s first antiretroviral program to treat people with AIDS.

Another woman is Dr. Thabelo Ramatlapeng, who spent eight years on the front lines of the AIDS battle as director-general of the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare. Currently secretary general of the Lesotho Red Cross, she was one of the first people in Lesotho to recognize the enormous threat AIDS poses to the country.

As ministers came and went, she began to notice that the number of tuberculosis cases in the country–one of the most common opportunistic infections associated with AIDS in Africa–had begun to rise alarmingly, while cure rates were plummeting. The only possible cause for these alarming statistics, she quickly realized, was AIDS.

Ramatlapeng is an ardent supporter of the ruling party, and therefore is Raditapole’s political adversary. But the two outspoken women agree about the enormity of the threat posed by AIDS to their small country.

Although political support for AIDS intervention during the second half of the 1990s was minimal, Ramatlapeng helped to craft Lesotho’s initial response to the epidemic. Under her watch, the first national survey of HIV infection rates was carried out. Today, at the Red Cross, Ramatlapeng is working to develop community-based health programs to support the government’s fledgling AIDS treatment and care programs.

Like Raditapole, Ramatlapeng believes oppression of women has played an important role in the rapid spread of the epidemic. But she also blames Lesotho’s culture of migrant labor, which she says, has divided families and made them forget how to live together.

“People were separated from families. And that was a breeding ground for disaster,” she said.

Lawyer Ties AIDS to Inequality

AIDS has also given new impetus to women’s rights in Swaziland, another tiny southern African country that now has the world’s highest HIV-infection rate. The country’s king has 13 wives and fiancees, some just in their teens.

The country’s health minister, Chief Sipho Shongwe, blames the rapid spread of AIDS in Swaziland on the demise of traditional culture. But Lomcebo Dlamini, an articulate young lawyer who is national coordinator of the Swaziland branch of Women in Law, a legal aid and advocacy group, said it is no coincidence that Swaziland has the world’s worst HIV infection rate and some of the continent’s most traditional views on the status of women.

“Clearly, there must be some relationship there,” said Dlamini, from behind her desk at the organization’s offices near downtown Mbabane, Swaziland’s capital city. “The inhibitions that don’t allow women to be free are the things that keep them in a place where they are then open to vulnerability,” she said.

Like Raditapole in Lesotho, Dlamini and her colleagues in Swaziland are working to rewrite the legal framework that makes women legal minors. Under Swazi law, for example, women cannot inherit property or open bank accounts without the permission of their husband or father.

Much of their effort so far has been focused on ensuring that the country’s new constitution–which comes into effect at the beginning of next year–protects women.

Under the new constitution, women will gain many new rights, although the group did not get everything they asked for. But changing the law, Dlamini says, is only part of the battle.

“The law is great, but you need a broader understanding of women’s rights in the community,” she said. As a result, much of her work is education.

“One of the things we’ve discovered in doing our work is while the law can be progressive it means nothing if the attitudes remain the same,” she said.

Nicole Itano is a Johannesburg-based freelance reporter.