Creating Safe Spaces for Young Women-ICASA 2011

Mary Philips of YWCA of Ethiopia shares her excitement and impressions as a delegate to the 16th International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections in Africa:

Last week Addis Ababa was host to the 16th International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa  (ICASA 2011). Registration costs were pretty steep, but a few weeks ago I made it my goal to find a way to attend. I called the organizers and explained my project and situation and asked politely for a discount. The harried woman on the phone told me that since the conference was just days away they wouldn’t be able to accommodate my request. Then, on the advice of a colleague, I tried to worm my way in as a volunteer. This method actually resulted in success fairly quickly, but then another, better opportunity arrived and I jumped on it.

Nelly, Mary, and delegation at Inter-generational dialogue

I have been volunteering/interning/hanging out (it’s difficult to qualify what I actually do) with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) of Ethiopia. They have several programmes for girls and a very friendly, welcoming staff. Just four days before the conference began Sabe Haile, the YWCA General Secretary of Ethiopia called me and surprised me by saying she’d convinced the World YWCA to sponsor me for ICASA! I would be part of the World YWCA’s delegation, which included young women from eight different member associations: Angola, Benin, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Zambia. As a member of the World YWCA delegation, I was also required to attend the pre-ICASA meeting they were hosting in the two days preceding the conference’s opening session. I had been assigned the role of small group facilitator and worked closely with the two representatives from Angola and Tanzania. The big topic of the weekend was how to ensure girls’ sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) are upheld. SRHR cover a broad range of topics but include important issues such as ensuring access to contraceptives, privacy in clinical settings, protection from sexual violence, the ability to choose whether or not to marry, and more. The World WYCA is interested not only in protecting and strengthening SRHR, but also empowering young women to become advocates for these rights on a  local, national, and global level. The young women in attendance (ranging from age 16 to 30) shared successful SRHR programs from their own countries.

While this all was unfolding, I realized I had stumbled into a new safe space. Obviously I was excited to attend ICASA. I was interested to learn more about HIV and AIDS in the African context, see how gender and  youth concerns were a part of the larger agenda on HIV and AIDS, and perhaps pick up a few contacts for South Africa. Entering the conference as a part of the YWCA team, however, added an extra dimension to my time there. For a little while I wasn’t a solo traveler interested in safe spaces for girls, but part of a larger group whose members were interested in the gender dynamics at play in the AIDS epidemic. If I am being honest, it took me a few days to grasp just what a privilege it was to be asked to participate with this particular group of young women. They were a diverse group; they differed in age, in background, in level of involvement at the YWCA, and in language. Initially, all these differences were a challenge to navigate. The conference was in English, but everyone’s comfort level with the language varied and I wasn’t always sure what had been successfully communicated and what had gotten lost in translation.

It is now clear to me that the World YWCA created a safe space by allowing this diverse group of young women (myself included) to participate in ICASA as one unit. Safe spaces, as I have said countless times in the last few months, bring girls together to build their social networks and teach them new skills. This, in turn, empowers them to improve their lives and the lives of those around them. Well, that’s definitely what has happened over the last week. Although just last Friday most people in the room were strangers, there is now a strong bond between the participants. While the YWCA certainly invited these delegates so that they would disseminate the information they learn here with the people at home, it is important to recognize that some of the most important lessons did not come from the conference presenters. Instead, it originated in the conversations that sprang up between these young, African women who wanted to share what the situation was like in their country. During the conference, the YWCA hosted an inter-generational dialogue on how girls and parents relate on matters of sexual and reproductive health. As I sat listening to what my new friends had to say about their experiences I was reminded why I find this project so exciting. For me, there is nothing more dynamic or energizing than hearing young women speak out, confidently and clearly about the challenges they face and work together to find a solution.

Two Different Perspectives: ICASA 2011

Kuribachew Kebede of YWCA of Ethiopia shares her thoughts on Youth Leadership at ICASA:

During ICASA we learnt how change does not happen by accident, it happens by collective action. It is important to have solidarity with women and girls living with and affected by HIV and AIDS. There is a common ground in most countries in Africa, i.e., women living with HIV experience particular forms of stigma and discrimination, especially in relation to our perceived or actual roles as mothers and carers. There needs to be immediate passage and implementation of laws to stop stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV, and other key affected women, and for awareness rising around mechanisms to secure justice in the event of human right violations. It makes me delighted to see many unprecedented successes in the prevention and control of HIV and AIDS. During a workshop, ‘Youth Leadership in response to AIDS’, we as African youth came together and discussed issues of common interest and concern in relation to HIV prevention, control and stigma. Although we have made some progress in parts of the continent, Sub – Saharan Africa still has the highest prevalence rate in the world. In order to throw this fact into the dust bin of history once and for all, the youth in Africa has a huge responsibility as well as capacity to halt and even reverse the spread of the virus across the continent. By the youth coming together to mobilise and share ideas we believe we can indeed achieve the zero discrimination,   zero new HIV infections, and zero new HIV related deaths targeted at the Global level.  With this regard, I can proudly testify the success of the YWCA – Ethiopia in its intervention towards addressing Sexual Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR), HIV and AIDS. The YWCA Ethiopia strives hard to provide and promote adequate information about SRHR and AIDS related issues to young women across the country. Furthermore, ICASA has created the space for young people to be empowered. When people are informed and have their capacity built through information, they will be empowered and take the responsibility to handle their own affairs. Moreover, community leadership is integral to the response to HIV and AIDS; only through taking ownership at every level within societies will we see true transformation. The theme of ‘owning’ really rang true during this session as we began to claim our space in playing a lead role in the future of Africa.

Elizabeth Butegwa of YWCA of Uganda shares her thoughts on the impact ICASA has made on her:

Having grown up in mostly urban areas my entire life, in and out of Africa, I always considered myself to be well versed on HIV and AIDS as well as SRHR. Something as simple as our culture can affect not only the spread of HIV but gender based violence as well. Forced Marriages, female circumcision, unsafe male circumcision and rituals, are all present in our African culture and simple changes or eradication of some of these practices could be the difference between life and death. In addition to this, the role of family in responding to the long term effects of the epidemic is real and substantial. Throughout ICASA there was a lot of emphasis on the role the youth can play in the response to AIDS. One truly remarkable thing, I felt, was how much power the youth has over this epidemic. All the facts and figures we were given show clearly how big an impact the youth can make if we were more involved, more active and practiced safer behaviour really. Not getting drunk or taking drugs is something that could drastically change the outcomes. Using condoms, going for tests, are not hard things to do but its mind boggling to think how much this is not done and yet, you would think it would be obvious. What is it then? Am I different from all the other youth in Africa? These were the questions I asked myself throughout this meeting and this is my answer. In many ways, I am like a number of youth in Africa today. We have been brought up in cities, we have travelled around the world, and we have been educated at the best schools. However, the simple fact is as all this is happening, our actual world is getting smaller, we no longer think about the people who do not have our lifestyle, our educational background, the advantages in our lives that we don’t even see anymore. I can honestly say before this experience, my world didn’t consist of whether or not I had access to SRH services because I just did. Pregnancy didn’t scare me because in my mind, I would have the support I need. Cultural practices were not even a blip on my radar because I’m my own person. Never did I actually stop and think about how much all these things I take for granted are actually life and death decisions to someone else. It was truly humbling and life changing. It made me realize how much of a bubble I was living in. One, I never want to revisit.

“If Your Husband Doesn’t Beat You, It Means He Doesn’t Love You?”

The World YWCA participated in the 16th International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections in Africa (ICASA 2011) in Addis Ababa Ethiopia. Marta Guimaraes from the YWCA of Angola and Jennifer Mbise from the YWCA of Tanzania participated in the Inter-generational Dialogue on SRHR and HIV at ICASA, they share with us their thoughts and discussions during the event.

During the inter-generational dialogue on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) and HIV we discussed the

Marta Guimaraes

role of men in eliminating violence against women. It can be difficult to involve men directly when working with survivors of violence as women need a safe space and more often than not feel uncomfortable when men are present. This is evident when we look at the low rates at which young women are accessing youth centers when compared to boys. Thus, creating a problem as in many cases these young women would be accessing information on SRHR in youth centers, however if they do not access the youth centers they will not receive the relevant (if any) information. Therefore, we need to find creative ways to reach out to these vulnerable young women, in most communities culture determines accessibility of information on these issues so it’s important to address the traditional leaders and use their influence to change how the community responds to HIV and AIDS and promotes SRHR. It was identified that this gap in information is a shared problem across generations. We can all too easily blame our mothers for not sharing adequate SRHR information with us, when in fact they often do not have the information themselves. In this respect, education around these issues must be implemented and promoted at all levels from schools, youth centers, churches, clinics, health centers and re-enforced by government policies. Furthermore, we think that services for SRHR and HIV need to be integrated so that they are all in one place instead of people having to go to several different places, which creates more problems and health centers should effectively meet the needs of HIV positive people as well as participating in prevention initiatives.

Jennifer Mbise

Although, traditionally across many African communities men fail to co-operate in recognizing SRHR for women, this does not mean they should not be part of the conversation because in order to prevent violence and promote gender equality men and women should work together. In Zambia 80% of rural women believe violence is justified if a woman upsets her husbands for example, if she refuses to have sex or ‘lets’ the food get cold. It’s like this saying in a certain tribe in Tanzania, “If your husband doesn’t beat you, it means he doesn’t love you”. During the inter-generational dialogue we talked about this for some time discussing how violence against women is viewed as the norm and we truly think that it’s appalling, tragic and unacceptable. For us personally the magnitude of embedded tolerance towards violence against women really hits home when even educated women within our own communities accept and fail to advocate on these issues. It is a known fact that women who are abused are more at risk of contracting HIV. UNAIDS has the goal of zero new infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS related deaths therefore SRHR information and HIV prevention training needs to accessible to all and not treated as a taboo. Furthermore, African leaders should come together to demand the respected funds that Western governments agreed to contract to respond HIV and AIDS. Apparently, what they would ask for over three years is equal to US military spending for one day. A lot of funding comes from external sources however due to the global economic crisis we now need to find effective ways to increase domestic funding for HIV prevention and treatment.

My First Impressions At ICASA

By Marta Guimaraes

December 4th marked the official opening of the 16th International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections in Africa (ICASA 2011) in Addis Ababa Ethiopia. The five-day conference under the theme ‘Own, Scale-up and Sustain’ expects to actively engage participants through high-level plenary sessions, satellite sessions, skill building sessions, poster exhibition and various side events. The World YWCA is participating in ICASA with a delegation of 15 women, 12 of whom are young women from eight YWCA African associations accompanied by Mandy Nogarede and Hendrica Okondo from the World YWCA Office and the General Secretary of YWCA of Ethiopia Ms. Saba Haile.

Marta Guimaraes

Reflecting on her first few days at ICASA, Marta of YWCA of Angola shares her experience:

It was amazing to see so many young African women excited and passionate about pushing for change at the government level. I have participated in the Pre-ICASA training held by the World YWCA focusing on leadership, advocacy and human rights based approaches for integrating Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) and HIV. In the second part of the training we reviewed our progress in implementing SRHR projects and shared our best practice in reaching marginalised young women. We then went on to evaluate strategies developed to support young women living with HIV to be champions advocating for inclusive sensitive and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services. This was an interesting session with lots of concerns and topics being discussed.

The Abuja declaration has been discussed a lot, but most African countries have not met the goal of 15% of budget allocated to health care. However, setting these targets and having governments make large, public commitments to respond HIV and AIDS can have a large impact and needs to continue. What we need now are for our leaders to recommit to the promises made at Abuja. In the plenary session ‘Keeping the Promise Monitoring and Evaluation of HIV Programs’, the importance of strong leadership at all levels from the lowest to the highest is a key factor in response to HIV and AIDS. Leaders must be accountable, responsible, and committed. It is only when leaders discuss topics like HIV and AIDS and put them on their agenda that it will be something that all people discuss and want to address. Through this plenary I learnt about the objective of eliminating Mother-to-child-transmission (MTCT) by 2015 and I was very impressed with this goal and feel optimistic about realising it. I had no idea that public health experts had said that large-scale Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART) treatment was an impossibility in Africa. It’s great to know they were wrong, both because it means thousands of lives have been saved and because it means we don’t always have to listen to pessimistic voices.

During the plenary there was a lot of discussion about the funding challenges ahead and how Africa will deal with funding HIV programs and interventions as a lot of funding comes from external sources which are unreliable in this global economic crisis. Therefore, this presents a pressing problem for Africa thus we need to find innovative, effective ways to continue to increase domestic funding for HIV prevention and treatment because it is increasingly difficult to access external funding. I think African governments and world leaders’ alike need to back HIV and AIDS prevention initiatives however there is a lot of discrimination and stigma surrounding the issue. His Holiness the Abune Paulos I, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, stressed during the dialogue the importance and responsibility of religious leaders to talk about HIV and AIDS in order to breakdown the stereotypes and discrimination people face. One young woman who is HIV positive gave a testimony describing how she had suffered much stigma and discrimination at the hands of those she loved most and her local community. Her own mother locked her in the room and wouldn’t touch her. Even her local church would not allow her to enter as they were afraid she would spread HIV. This young woman’s experience really showed us how horrible it is to suffer stigma and how negatively it can impact an individual’s life. Through out the day it became more and more evident that if we want to change the situation for women, we must pool our resources and have a large, unified effort. Only by working together will we make a difference. I am very much looking forward to participating in the Women’s Networking Zone convened by ATHENA Network and the National Network of Positive Women Ethiopians, in collaboration with Southern African AIDS Trust (SAT), and the Global Coalition of Women and AIDS (GCWA).

Driving Change for a Dynamic Commonwealth

By Jenta Tau

Jenta Tau, Programme Associate, Young Women, from the YWCA of Solomon Islands She shares with us her thoughts and her experience from Perth, Australia., where she attended the Commonwealth Peoples Forum in October 2011Image.

On October 2527, 2011, I was one of the young women YWCA Delegates who participated in the Commonwealth Peoples Forum. This Forum is held every two years in the lead up to the Commonwealth Head of Government Meeting (CHOGM), held this year in Perth, Australia.

The event, which gathered more than 300 people representing different civil society organisations within the 54 countries which make up the Commonwealth, was amazing! To be able to participate in the discussions, debates and deliberations of the key issues affecting civil society was a very valuable experience.

With clear and strategic objectives, civil society organisations (CSOs) in the Commonwealth aim to: raise the visibility of CSOs within in the Commonwealth; create partnerships in the quest for development and democracy, and meaningfully look into ways and opportunities on how to strengthen the links between Commonwealth civil society organisations.

The Forum also created the much needed space for dialogue between civil society and government ministers on the priority issues of the Commonwealth. It provided opportunities for that dialogue to be raised and addressed at the Commonwealth Head of Government Meetings.

In line with the Forum objectives, 8 key priority issues were strongly debated and highlighted.

These include:

  • Governance and democracy
  • Education, technology and innovation,
  • Indigenous people workshop
  • Culture, identity, peace and security,
  • Climate change, environment and disaster management
  • Human rights
  • Economic development, trade and finance
  • Gender and women’s rights

These key issues were addressed in parallel workshops which were composed of experts who shared their experiences, best practices and realities within their organisations and communities.

The YWCA was one of the active CSO participating in the workshops. The World YWCA partnered with the YWCA of Australia in the coordination and participation on the YWCA in the lead up to CHOGM. The Delegation was led by Caroline Lambert, Emma Bird, and Roslyn Dundas from the YWCA of Australia and myself, representing the World YWCA.  The YWCA was not merely a participating CSO, but we actively contributed and facilitated a World Café session in the Gender and Women’s Rights workshop. We used the intergenerational dialogue approach, focusing on the four critical areas of the Commonwealth Plan of Action, which are also inline with the World YWCA Strategic Framework:

  1. Gender, democracy, peace and conflict
  2. Gender, human rights and law
  3. Gender, poverty eradication and economic empowerment
  4. Gender and HIV/AIDS, which also inline with the World YWCA thematic.

The Café Session closely explored examples of partnerships that have succeeded in mobilising civil society and how this links up to the Commonwealth Plan of Action work in terms of its resources, policies, institution. What needs to change in terms of laws and best practices in order to enable partnerships like this to work was also identified during this session. Participants looked into ways of sharing information and best practices and learning from individual leaders, enabling the environment and commonwealth institutions/organisations to share and implement this at the national levels. The Café Sessions also facilitated the identification of how and what Commonwealth member states and Commonwealth bodies need to do in order to enable such partnerships.

Participating in Commonwealth Peoples Forum was an interesting and eye-opening experience for me. In addition being given the opportunity to facilitate, observe and learn from the other participants and share my experiences and reflections with them was invaluable. Some of the points that were captured from the discussions were the development of a Memorandum of Understanding and services within CSOs and mobilising resources through the alliances between CSOs, as well as developing a mentoring body within the Commonwealth members will be very  helpful. Reflecting and observing the reality of the different classes that exist within the Commonwealth, it was called upon to eliminate such differences so that equality be emphasised within the Commonwealth.

The Peoples Forum highlighted that civil society lies at the heart of the work of the Commonwealth. If the Commonwealth truly is driven for the people and is a place where people can work together as happy people and peaceful and just communities, then the Commonwealth will truly be prosperous and dynamic