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ZIMBABWE: Secrets and silence around AIDS
Kudzai Makombe, Inter Press Service (IPS)
March 29, 2005

HARARE - As AIDS affects a growing number of women and girls in sub-Saharan Africa, a timely novel has been released by first time Zimbabwean author Lutanga Shaba which tackles the factors underpinning women's vulnerability to HIV.

Entitled 'Secrets of a Woman's Soul', the novel recounts the story of Beata, a mother struggling to ensure a bright future for her daughter Linga. Told from Linga's perspective, the novel is based on actual events in Salisbury, as the capital of Harare was known during the colonial era. It moves back and forth in time as Linga, who is preparing to bury her mother, recalls her childhood and the sacrifices made by Beata.

Determined to earn enough money to further the education of her daughter, Beata finds herself forced to have sex with an unscrupulous man in exchange for a job. Ultimately, she contracts HIV.

Without any hint of moralizing - and with unexpected touches of black humour - the novel lays bare the fact that calls for abstinence or "condomising", central to AIDS initiatives for women, often mean little to those who are poor and powerless.

According to the United Nations Development Fund for Women, 55 percent of all HIV-positive adults in sub-Saharan Africa are women, while teenage girls are five times more likely to be infected than boys.

Launching a joint report by three U.N. agencies at the Fifteenth International AIDS Conference held in Thailand last year, Thoraya Obaid - head of the United Nations Population Fund - said AIDS campaigns should be expanded to meet the real needs of women and girls, as they often lacked the social and economic power to push for fidelity or condom use. Obaid also noted that that abuse of women heightened their risk of contracting AIDS. (The report in question was entitled 'Women and HIV/AIDS: Confronting the Crisis'.)

The fact that the international community has not already addressed these issues angers Shaba, who says the failure to discuss actual problems confronting women simply compounds the dangers presented by HIV. She is also frustrated by the ongoing stigmatization of AIDS, which throws an added spoke in the wheel when it comes to dealing with the pandemic.

"I wrote the novel because I was angry. I didn't feel my mother needed to die when she did and I was angry about the way the stigmatization around her disease made her silent, the way the medication was hard to access…and the way the world makes it worse by moralising about the disease," Shaba says.

Her novel also highlights the fact that discussions about the sexuality of HIV-positive people are taboo - and that this too stands in the way of people getting tested for the H.I. virus.

"Human beings are sexual beings," she says, "and the message that comes through from the silence is that you are better off not finding out…than to find out and have protected sex."

Similar sentiments have been observed by Hope Chigudu, a leading gender activist and one of the founders of the Zimbabwe Women's Resource Centre and Network.

"The culture of silence is loud," she observes.

When Shaba started sending her manuscript to publishers, the response from these firms amounted to less than a vote of confidence.

"The initial reactions from publishers were so polarised, and they didn't seem to know where to locate it," Shaba says.

As a result, she published the novel herself. A lawyer by training, Shaba hopes that now the book has come out, a publisher will pick up on it and distribute the work more widely. At present, it can be ordered online.

Sales from the novel will be used to establish a scholarship fund for young Zimbabwean women who have been orphaned by AIDS. Called the Mama Milazi Scholarship Fund after Shaba's late grandmother, whom she describes as fiercely independent and ahead of her time, the fund will enable beneficiaries to embark on training in the business and information technology fields, amongst others. (END/2005)

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