2 May 2006
Not long ago, Florence Z. thought she could do nothing about her HIV status.
“I am 70 years old,” she said. “I felt it was something that could happen to my grandchildren, not to me.”
But then she saw the challenge facing her: “I had to help my grandchildren, but I didn’t know how.”
Florence Z. has since joined a group of concerned grandmothers in Amathole in the Eastern Cape, and is now learning to use words like “sex” and “condom” in a way she has never done before.
She is also learning about what young people say about sexual violence and HIV/Aids.
“It is the first time that someone has a workshop of this nature for elders only,” she said. “We are very happy about this, because it is not easy to express ourselves when there are young people around.”
Bridging the gap between old and young
Several of these groups are taking off in Amathole, where the district municipality and the Community Information, Empowerment and Transparency (CIET) Trust have launched a project to bridge the distance between elders and young people in the fight against the pandemic.
The CIET Trust, a national research NGO with a local branch in Amathole, will measure the impact of the project on both the elderly and the youth. The Conflict and Governance Facility (CAGE), a partnership between the South African Treasury and the European Union, is sponsoring the initiative.
“Elders are often left out of HIV/Aids programmes because they are seen as sexually inactive and at low risk, and yet they can be a moral yardstick for younger people, and so an essential part of the solutions we seek,” said councillor Helen Neal-May of Amathole, who spearheaded the initiative.
“We have to narrow the gap between elders and youth if we want to tackle HIV/Aids,” said CIET Trust executive director Neil Andersson, who led a nationwide study of sexual violence and HIV/Aids in 2003 that was the largest to date in South Africa, covering 283 000 young people, 42 000 of them in the Eastern Cape.
Someone to talk to
According to Andersson, around a third of youngsters in the Eastern Cape feel they do not have anyone to talk to about their sexual lives, with the situation being worst for girls.
“This can have very negative consequences, if we consider that six out of 10 children and teenagers think it is not rape to force sex with someone you know,” Andersson said. “And, in spite of all the publicity out there, four out of 10 do not know that condoms can protect them from HIV/Aids.”
Elders could play a crucial role in prevention “because they have strong values and powerful life lessons to share,” Andersson said.
“But we also know from our studies that they need specific knowledge about sexual violence and the HIV/Aids epidemic, and more self-confidence to reach out to younger people.”
According to CAGE programme co-ordinator Charmaine Estment, the “creative and divergent angle” of the awareness project, focusing on the marginalised group of the aged, is what won the funding.
In CIET’s workshops, elders discuss the evidence from studies on sexual violence and HIV/Aids and explore ways of talking with their children and grandchildren about these issues.
The groups also identify HIV/Aids services in local communities and make sure they know how to get access to these services and how and where to speak out in case they see the need for improvement.
“Our workshops with gogos boost their self-confidence a lot,” explained Ncumisa Ngxowa, CIET’s coordinator in the Eastern Cape.
“The first few sessions are very quiet, but then they get used to all the new words and they start asking us all the questions that may have been bottled inside them for years.”
CIET’s facilitators are particularly sensitive to gender issues.
“We keep the male and female elders separate, because they are shy even to talk in front of members of the opposite sex of their own age group,” Ngxowa said.
CIET encourages individuals and organisations working on HIV/Aids and sexual violence in the Amathole district to contact Ms Ngxowa at (043) 722-0655, mobile 083 597 1631, or by e-mail at email@example.com, to find out how they can get involved in the project.