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January 10th, 2006

Gender Violence: Violence Against Women in South Africa & The AIDS Pandemic

by D. Clark MacPherson

This is not a pleasant story. It is also not a popular subject. It’s not high on the Bush agenda and it’s one of the reasons why liberals are needed more than ever. How would Karl Rove deal with this difficult issue? Imagine that you are a young woman coming from a comfortable background, and you find yourself sitting in a prison, locked in a jail cell with a convicted rapist-in South Africa.

Why, you might ask yourself, would anyone do that? The only answer that makes any sense is this: Because someone needs to do it. For the benefit of the rest of mankind. Elena Ghanotakis is a 26 year-old woman who currently works in SoHo as a waitress. She is an intelligent, outgoing and beautiful young woman who is focused. Her focus is to tell an audience (that she hopes is growing) about the devastation in South Africa and the danger that we all face.

As a result of AIDS and HIV which is spreading in South Africa, current news reports talk about the death of nearly 80 million people anticipated by the year 2020. But Elena’s story paints a much darker and more dangerous picture.

It is a picture of a culture that once had the opportunity to control the infection. In the early 1990’s both Thailand and Brazil had the same rate of infection that South Africa did. They made a concerted effort to control it and it worked. But, the economic and political atmosphere in South Africa was not conducive to making the necessary changes and now we find ourselves in a dangerous predicament.

This is not an indictment of South Africa, although until recently Thambo Mbeki, the Prime Minister, stated that HIV does not cause AIDS. That does not bode well for a promising policy of containment.

The documentary that Elena is working on deals with the larger issue that has led us so dangerously down this path of public health disaster. It is the culture of gender violence that is not just indicative of the South African experience. Poverty and archaic gender roles are prevalent in many countries. But, here as elsewhere, when you associate male head of household with no opportunity for work, and female rearing of children as sexual objects-the many cultural associations work together to form the perfect storm. There is the fact that in Africa there is still Apartheid on a not-so-subliminal level and therefore fewer opportunities for work and low self-esteem for men. Condoms, which are still seen as affecting male machismo, are anathema. And, there is drug use, alcohol use and physical abuse towards women-all of which come in to play together in sexual conduct. Women are often limited to the role of mother hoping to protect her children while desperately hoping to keep her man-who threatens to find a prostitute or another woman if she insists upon a condom.

The legacy of Apartheid still causes workers to move around to camps away from home in order to find or keep work. This leads to relationships with prostitutes and homosexual contact when not at home.

Elena visited South Africa after receiving a grant from Dartmouth to study HIV and Women. With a background in International Relations, she had already studied Women’s Health issues in Argentina, India, and Denmark with the World Health Organization.

But she was not prepared for what she found in South Africa.

After initially meeting with women who headed organizations dealing with AIDS and rape, she was introduced to Corinne Hudson, head of Umtha Welanga (Sunrise). The organization was started after Hudson’s daughter had been gang-raped in South Africa. It places sexually abused and orphaned children whose parents are extremely ill or who have died from AIDS. Incidentally, she learned that in one township alone 15 to 17 children a month under the age of five are reported to have been raped. That is only those who are reported.

From this meeting, she became ever more aware of the gender violence and rape and the clear connection to the AIDS epidemic. The fact that the current health climate with traditional Western medicine is being avoided in favor of “Witch Doctors” who tell clients that having sex with a virgin is a cure for AIDS-illustrates the danger of the situation spiraling out of control. And, the fact that 35% of the top students at the University of Pretoria have AIDS is not a promising situation.

Elena decided that she needed to get to the root of the cultural health problem facing women (and men) by interviewing the rapists themselves, the chief cause of violence and infection. By pulling some strings she was able to interview the men who had been convicted of rape-those who readily acknowledged committing the violence.

The many levels of psychological trauma and cultural self-hatred were evident in most of her interviews. Most of the men had been abused as children, were members of gangs that grew out of poverty, and had little power in their lives. Rape was not sexual to them. It is not just a familiar slogan from Kinsey; that phrase was what actually came out of their mouths. When asked what they were thinking while they were raping their victim, the answer was that this was what had been done to them. It was retaliation, not sexual excitement.

The problem is so clear that wardens in South African prisons conduct counseling groups with the help of gang leaders so that the rape that occurs in prisons is controlled-thereby controlling the spread of AIDS. The power they experience by raping perpetuates an accelerating chain of infection. The fact that the Wardens distribute condoms illustrates the level of concern and danger. South African police have never been known to be social workers. Rapists are “rehabilitated” and infected, and then released into society once again if they are not educated. And, the beat goes on.

So, Elena sat in cells with these men and tried to understand the situation and attempted to formulate a plan: to think about how she could awaken people’s understanding of the gravity of this situation.

As a “skeleton Olympics” competitor (like the luge, but on your stomach, head first, going downhill at 70mph), she is tough, smart, and persistent. She only discontinued her Olympics aspiration after being told that?Ǭ after two concussions suffered during competition was IT. Currently she is waitressing and editing her documentary while searching for the grant money and investment to complete it.

When she was asked about her expectations of success with this project, she proudly told us that the BBC was extremely interested in her film. Will it make money? she was asked. She said that she is only interested in the good work that it will benefit-but added, “did you know that I was a financial analyst for many years at Goldman Sachs?”

“Frankly,” she said, “I think that this will be enormously successful.”

We hope so, for this is being done as a non-profit film. After the production expenses are reimbursed all of the proceeds will go to support programs in South Africa. We need more activists like Elena, who put their beliefs into practice. ”

For those of you interested in this project, visit: www.elenaghanotakis.com/documentary

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