October 1, 2010 – During August 2010, a host of community conversations were held in 11 designated areas countrywide as part the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s dialogue initiative to raise community awareness and reduce the incidence of HIV/AIDS.
The rationale behind the conversations is to change the perception and values of communities dealing with HIV/AIDS by equipping them to identify and discuss HIV/AIDS-related concerns and to make informed decisions. Communities are supported in this regard by dedicated facilitation teams.
In recognition of August being Women’s Month in South Africa, the focus of the August conversations was on issues relating to women and girls within the wider scope of HIV/AIDS.
The KwaMakhutha community in KwaZulu-Natal spoke about ukusoma (“thigh sex”), virginity testing, using muthi (“traditional medicine”) to attract men, theft of ARVs and clinic confidentiality at their August 19 meeting, attended by 86 community members.
A woman who does virginity testing in the community advocated that girls make personal decisions about whether to go for virginity testing and reassured the community that the process was done primarily to protect young women from sexually-transmitted infections (STIs), early pregnancy and contracting HIV. Her explanation of the link between ukusoma and “virgin pregnancy” led to a lengthy debate, with the community calling for a scientific explanation of virgin pregnancy at the next meeting.
Another community member focused on the role of mothers in educating their children truthfully about relevant issues, and paid particular attention to the importance of feeding children and laying down rules of behaviour. A church minister urged young girls to wait for the right time to engage in sexual relationships, explaining that doing so would protect them from HIV, STIs and pregnancy.
A traditional healer discussed the use of muthi to attract partners and stressed the importance of using protection during sex, irrespective of HIV-status, and encouraged HIV testing.
Alcohol and drugs, rape of the elderly and fear of disclosure were discussed at KwaLanga in the Western Cape at the conversation held on August 10, attended by 57 community members.
This community explored how substance abuse was directly related to prostitution, school dropouts and crime, and members suggested that visits to schools in Langa, during which conversation participants could share their experiences, introduce support groups and offer counselling, might help to build self-esteem and change perceptions among the youth.
On August 25, the Ngangelizwe community in the Eastern Cape addressed concerns relating to the inefficiency of their clinic and substance abuse. A total of 49 participants attended and a report back will be given at the next conversation, to be held on September 15.
During the reflections session, personal feedback from community members included someone deciding to give up the life of a drunkard and attend church, a man opting to always use condoms, and a third community member deciding to adopt a more responsible lifestyle and support fellow community members.
The rape of women and children (based on the misconception of a virgin cure), ineffective policing, lack of ARVs and provision of essential medical supplies were some of the issues identified by the community of Emantlaneni in the Eastern Cape.
A community task team due to meet with the local superintendent at the Thababomvu police station prior to the conversation found him to be generally unavailable. Previously, the team had compiled a list of five criminal cases of concern and presented these to local South African Police Force (SAPF) members. SAPF representatives attended the conversation in August to discuss issues of concern, but the cases were not addressed.
A second task team reported back on how they had met with a clinic committee and learned that the lack of medication was as a result of by poor roads, medical staff unwilling to work at the local clinic, no ambulance service due to hijackings, and a lack of transport for ARVs. The community was pleased with the proactive approach of the task teams and intended pushing for equitable solutions.
Two conversations were held in Giyani, Limpopo, on August 9 and 13, with 63 community members in attendance at the first and 113 at the second. Positive feedback since July, reported on during the first August conversation, was that a doctor had been employed at the local clinic. It was reported that the doctor only worked on Wednesdays, however, so not all patients were being attended to.
At the second meeting, attended by representatives of the Royal Council, Old Age Project and Rihanyu Development, it was agreed that the community needed to improve upon relations with local structures to address decision-making mechanisms and the implementation of solutions. The Royal Council promised to help the community to organise monthly prayer meetings.
Due to numerous activities planned for Women’s Month, only one of two planned conversations took place on August 21 in Lerome in the North West province.
A tavern owner and a representative from the local tribal authority were among the 72 attendees at the conversation, during which dialogue centred on HIV/ AIDS, stigma, and HIV counselling and testing (HCT). Specific issues highlighted included HIV-positive mothers breastfeeding, irresponsible behaviour that put others at risk, and community taverns encouraging misguided behaviour among the youth. Facilitators welcomed all community members and explained how conversations were aimed at curbing the spread of HIV/AIDS and not limited to those who were HIV-positive.
On August 12 and 19, conversations were held in the Galeshewe community in the Northern Cape, with 40 in attendance at the first meeting and 70 at the second.
Personal reflections articulated during the conversations included an appreciation of “deep issues like unemployment, drugs, alcohol and transactional sex which contribute to the spread of HIV”; the importance of “not mixing sex with alcohol”; the role of “consistency and perseverance [in defining] the way forward”; and the importance of “learners being free to express their feelings and finding comfort in the conversations”.
The community agreed to address prevalent issues such as alcohol and substance abuse, crime, unemployment and poverty by making tavern owners accountable for customers’ behaviour; increasing SAPF visibility; introducing sponsorship of food gardens; and encouraging church representatives and cultural, sporting and youth bodies to attend future conversations.
On August 24 and 25, 180 Kliptown community members assembled in Gauteng to pay tribute to the role of women and children and to establish a task team.
Following a storytelling session, a heated debate ensued, with some women claiming that “Men think that they have the right to have as many women as they like,” while others didn’t feel ready to take responsibility for their actions, and others still blamed muthi for the spread of HIV.
Issues that continued to pose problems within the community included: defaulting on the use of medication, the lack of abstinence, the importance but lack of sex education, the need for more mobile HCT stations, the breach of status confidentiality, and the representation of women at executive level within community organisations.
The Falala Hall was the location for the August 12 and 26 meetings for 50 members of the Soshanguve community of Gauteng. The focus during these conversations was on the role of women in the community of Soshanguve, where men purportedly believed that “women belong in the kitchen.”
Gender stereotypes formed the basis of debate, with men present saying they preferred “stay-at-home women”, because independent, working women “tended to lose respect for the man”, and some women claiming that they were vulnerable to abuse by men who believe “women are only there for sex”.
Poor relationships were cited by women within the community as the reason for non-disclosure of status, with some claiming that men used money to “own” women. Ongoing abuse of women and the sacrifices made by women were also raised as points for concern.
A community member summarised the debate in the following way: “We have lost respect for each other. That is why the spread of HIV goes up every day, because we have lost brotherly respect.”
The meeting closed with a focus on the importance of inviting more community members to attend and taking action on future challenges at the September 14 meeting.
The prevailing political climate in Mhluzi, Mpumalanga, prevented the August community conversation from taking place.