Alicia Mdaka, 66, is a poor, rural South African great-grandmother. She has lost her husband, four of her children and two of her grandchildren to HIV/AIDS. In October 2001, she helped found a group called Grandmothers Against Poverty and AIDS (GAPA) based in Cape Town, which now has 200 members who make blankets, plant vegetable gardens and raise money for funerals.
Middle-aged Sherry Ardell lives in a middle-class suburb of Toronto, one of Canada's most cosmopolitan cities. She and her family live comfortably and enjoy good health. Sherry and 14 of her friends formed a group called Oomama in 2005 after they heard Canadian activist and diplomat Stephen Lewis talk about the AIDS crisis in Africa and the toll it takes on that continent's grannies. (The name Oomama is derived from a South African women's chant: 'Oomama bakudala babethandaza', which means 'Our mothers used to pray'.) Oomama, an association of Canadian grandmothers, held a garage sale not long ago and raised Can$22,000 (US$1=Can$1.1) for women like Alicia.
In August, Alicia and Sherry met. Along with 100 African and 200 Canadian grandmothers, they convened for the first international Grandmothers' Gathering, organized by Toronto-based NGO The Stephen Lewis Foundation (in association with the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto) to draw attention to the plight of Africa's 'AIDS grannies'.
They were joined by women like Matilda Mwenda, 51, of Zambia, who has lost two of her seven children to AIDS and who now looks after five orphaned grandchildren and two nieces. There was Priscilla Mwanza, 49, also of Zambia, a widow infected with HIV who cares for three grandchildren in addition to her own children, a niece and an ageing mother. Lucia Mazibuko from South Africa was also there. She lost her only two daughters to HIV/AIDS and then cared for her two HIV+ grandchildren while helping to launch the Gogo Granny Outreach Project, a support network for women like herself.
In launching the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign in March 2006 to raise awareness and mobilize support for Africa's grandmothers, Stephen Lewis said, "Grandmothers are emerging as the unrecognized heroes of the continent. No one gives them their due. Few acknowledge that society could not exist without them. No special provision is made for their food, clothing, shelter or emotional needs. Yet, the fate of generations of children weighs heavily on their shoulders."
According to data from UNICEF, UNAIDS and other agencies, in sub-Saharan Africa alone, 14 million children have been orphaned by AIDS. Over 50 per cent of orphaned children live in grandparent-headed households in Botswana and Malawi and over 60 per cent in Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Some grandmothers single-handedly care for 10 to 15 orphans, not all of who are related to them.
Lewis's foundation provides care and support to women, orphans, grandmothers and people living with AIDS in Africa. It has funded over 140 community-based projects in 14 countries to date, providing grassroots support that enables food security, income, school costs, counseling and social support. "Governments haven't the faintest idea what to do," says Lewis, a former Canadian ambassador to the UN, Special Envoy to Africa on AIDS, and outspoken critic of official responses to the AIDS pandemic. "The policies for orphans, more often than not, are a grab bag of frantic interventions, where faith-based and community-based groups try desperately to cope with the numbers but rarely have either the capacity or the resources."
Without grandmothers to step in and assume the responsibility of child-rearing again, the oldest child in the family is often burdened with the care of siblings. Many orphans simply beg for food and sleep in the street. As they grow up, they often commit crimes, become sex workers, and become infected themselves with the virus that killed their parents.
In a joint statement issued in Toronto at the launch of the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign, the grandmothers had this to say: "We are strong, we are determined, we are resourceful ... and we have the wisdom that comes with age and experience. ... We have needs today, needs for the short-term and needs that will never go away. ... It is our solemn duty to the millions of grandmothers whose voices have never been heard that gives us the courage to raise those needs to demands. We demand the ear of the powerful. ... We do not need a great deal, but we do need enough. ... We grandmothers deserve hope. Our children, like all children, deserve a future. We will not raise children for the grave."
Added the Canadian grandmothers: "We offer the loan of our voices. We pledge to act as [the African grandmothers'] ambassadors, raising the long-suppressed stories until they are heard, understood and acted upon. We promise to apply pressure on governments, religious leaders, the international community. ... We are acutely conscious of the enormous debt owed to a generation of women who spent their youth freeing Africa, their middle age reviving it, and their older lives sustaining it. We will not rest until they can rest."
Nor will other women around the world who also recognize the plight of grandmothers as 'silent managers' filling the care gap in the AIDS epidemic. From Thailand to Tanzania, women in organizations like WOFAK - Women Fighting AIDS in Kenya - are now speaking out on behalf of the grannies. "HIV/AIDS has reversed societal set-ups," says WOFAK's recent newsletter. "Being a grandmother no longer means sitting back to enjoy the past years of toiling to beget a family and be cared for when one becomes old and helpless. Grandmothers are back to parenting their grandchildren. ... They are a forgotten generation."
September 24, 2006
(Elayne Clift writes about women and social issues internationally from Saxtons River, Vermont, USA.)