Last week was AIDS Awareness Week, a time when the world commemorates the lives that have been lost to AIDS related illnesses and highlights the increasing global epidemic that is impacting each corner of the world. Yet, where I come from - KwaZulu Natal province in South Africa - every week is AIDS Awareness Week, with 40 per cent of the population living with HIV and every community affected by the epidemic.
HIV and AIDS affect every aspect of life in South Africa. Adults of the most economically productive age become too sick to work, and businesses struggle to train new staff quickly enough. The health system has become overwhelmed with the number of people needing treatment and care. This is compounded by the lack of access to, and cost of, life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs. Children are forced to drop out of school to care for sick parents or to find work, and may be left to head their own households when their parents pass away. Or elderly grandmothers find themselves caring for their sick children and then raising orphans at a time in life when they should be being cared for themselves.
South Africa has over six million people living with HIV and the infection rate is higher among young people, especially young women. I am one of those millions of South African women living with HIV, becoming infected with the virus in 1999. I was in a long-term relationship and trusted my partner; however, I discovered I was HIV positive after a routine blood test. This is a common experience for many women in Africa. They are unable to negotiate safer sex with their partners and are often blamed for HIV infection if they discover their status first. Women may then experience violence from their partner and discrimination from the community. Addressing gender inequality is crucial to tackling HIV and AIDS.
I work with Oxfam Australia in Durban, South Africa, where we support a range of community-based organisations to provide services for HIV prevention and care, including a focus on gender and sexuality, and the rights of people living with and affected by HIV and AIDS.
Oxfam is making a real difference by responding to HIV-AIDS in new and creative ways. This includes working with soccer teams to communicate with young men about HIV-AIDS and equal rights for women; and educating young people inside pubs about HIV-AIDS and safer sex practices. Other interventions include supporting grandmothers in building their knowledge about HIV and AIDS and their rights in caring for orphaned children, as well as training men and women as community volunteers to provide care for those who are sick in their own homes.
The Australian Government has HIV programs in Asia and the Pacific, and is supporting Australian NGOs like Oxfam that are working in Africa. But it can still do more. The government recently announced a very welcome $1.5 billion increase in its overseas aid program by 2009. Australia could spend some of that increased aid budget on lifting its commitment to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Australia currently contributes around $18 million a year to the Global Fund. Based on the size of the economy, and the Global Fund's needs for 2006, Australia’s fair share would be $46.5 million, more than double its current pledge.
Increasing the global response to HIV and AIDS is vital. If we fail to respond adequately now, the greater the price to be paid in the future. The world has important lessons to learn from Africa’s experience of HIV and AIDS.
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