Gender and HIV and AIDS – The neglected issues in the local government elections

Sonke Gender Justice

With nearly six million HIV positive people, South Africa has by far the largest population of people living with HIV and AIDS of any country in the world. We also have some of the very highest rates of domestic and sexual violence in the world, with nearly a third of South African men reporting that they’ve committed an act of rape and nearly half saying that they’ve physically assaulted an intimate partner.

Government has long stated its commitment to gender transformation and has touted women’s participation in political office as a key strategy, yet, according to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) there were 53 000 local government candidates and of these only 19 731 were women. Even if progress has been made since 2006 where only 15 718 women were registered as candidates, it’s not enough.

In the midst of almost complete campaign silence on these issues, the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE), Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre (TLC), Nisaa Institute for Women’s Development (Nisaa) and Sonke Gender Justice (Sonke) organised a community political election indaba on 5 May 2011 in the community of Orange Farm. Political parties were asked to explain their positions on two issues: gender-based violence and HIV and AIDS. Over 150 community members attended and heard from AZAPO, UDM, ANC, PAC and the DA. Community members peppered the party representatives with questions such as: what are municipalities doing to combat GBV in their communities, and address issues related to HIV and AIDS? What work are they conducting with the clinics and police stations in their wards? What efforts are they making to raise awareness and change the attitudes of the men who live there? What are they doing to strengthen women’s leadership?

Gender parity and the municipal elections

While progress is being made in terms of female representation in our electoral system, much remains to be done. As women are disproportionately affected by gender-based violence and HIV and AIDS in our society, their presence as candidates, and their experiences, views and opinions, are sorely needed. Perhaps it is time that quotas are instituted as pre-requisites for political party registration in South Africa. This would go a long way to ensuring that women’s representation is not just regarded as a ‘nice to have’ or a politically expedient thing to do.

The issue of female representation was raised during the indaba and the majority of parties present responded by saying that they support 50/50 representation. The DA noted that their leadership is female but that they place a higher priority on quality than gender. We believe that this is a short-sighted approach to transformation. As women are directly affected by issues such as GBV and HIV, it is imperative that women are in positions within parties to ensure that such issues are not sidelined. Furthermore, increased female representation is much needed in order to rectify the patriarchal notion of leadership that suggests that men are inherently better leaders. The empowerment of women needs to be a purposeful and strategic policy of parties which requires more women to be in leadership positions that are meaningful and substantive.

The ANC admitted that they are encountering difficulties implementing 50/50 representation. Unfortunately, the details of these difficulties were not divulged. One wonders whether any difficulties are related to issues of acceptance, resulting from an entrenched inability of parties to see beyond women’s sex and recognise them as gifted leaders. We encourage parties to persist with 50/50 efforts, as any form of transformation requires persistence and dedication.

Commitment to combat HIV and AIDS

Seventeen years into our democracy we still do not have clear, visible, measurable commitments from political parties regarding HIV and AIDS and GBV in their election campaigns and manifestos. This is shameful and undermines the freedom that South Africans fought for.

The parties were asked to express their opinions on the causes of the still rapid spread of HIV. AZAPO emphasised the need for education and and high ethical standards which are essential for good governance and hence critical for delivery; the DA identified transactional sex as one of the root causes and stressed the need for people to be empowered to be able to make their own decisions regarding their sexuality; the UDM stressed the need for faithfulness and abstinence, as well as specific line items in municipal budgets; the PAC saw the ABC campaign as a solution; while the ANC stated that the use of the ABC campaign is challenging and that illiteracy plays an important role.

During this discussion, the ANC stated that they will champion morality tests after the elections. The audience raised the opinion that it would be problematic to place the issue of defining morality in the hands of the government.

Sonke is deeply concerned about the concept of morality tests, as morality is highly subjective and we would be opposed to any such drive. Political parties should be discouraged from focusing on issues such as morality when discussing HIV and AIDS, as such discussions can encourage the stigmatisation of HIV positive people. South Africa needs a much more multi-faceted approach than a focus on abstinence and morality.

Transactional sex, on the other hand, is a topic which desperately needs further attention and intervention, particularly in terms of the gender dynamics and power imbalances that perpetuate it.

In general, it would be greatly encouraging to see parties discussing the effect of gender roles on the spread of HIV and the negative effects of notions of masculinity. For example, notions of what it means to be a real man tell us that men should be strong, powerful and in control; they should never ask for help or display weakness. These notions can manifest themselves in men feeling reluctant to get tested for HIV, use a condom or seek treatment. Political parties engaging with these issues can greatly influence people’s attitudes towards issues such as testing and condom use.

The ongoing need to end discrimination and stigma

The parties all agreed that they were strongly opposed to discrimination against HIV positive people, especially in the health care system. The PAC stressed the importance of empowering people; and AZAPO suggested that actions should be taken against health professionals who discriminate against HIV positive people. The community members described to the present party officials the treatment that HIV positive people receive in their local clinics, for example waiting in separate queues and using separate beds. The ANC representatives present committed to following up on this issue with the clinic concerned. All of the parties stressed the need to fight stigma and provide dignified housing.

The evidence provided, which reveals the continuing stigmatisation that HIV positive people suffer, highlights the fact that much more work remains to be done in this area. While many of us may feel great progress has been made in relation to discrimination, in the lives of people in many communities this may not the case.

Gender violence is a distressing concern

In terms of violence, the community members present asked the party representatives what their parties will do to reduce violence at a local level. AZAPO responded by emphasising the need to educate families and encourage women to report violence. The PAC stressed the need to acknowledge the positive role that men can play in protecting their families. The ANC brought attention to the effects of alcohol. A few parties suggested street security communities and discussed the role that NGOs play as experts in this field.

We welcome the idea that there are many positive roles that men can play in preventing violence and supporting victims of violence. Men need to be encouraged to embrace the potential role that they can play as advocates for change and they need to be encouraged to support each other in opposing violence. It is also really important for more attention to be paid to the effects of alcohol. Again, stereotyped notions of masculinity encourage men to drink, which leads to increased violence and increased HIV transmission. While many NGOs are experts in this field, local government should not shirk all responsibility and leave it entirely up to NGOs to deal with issues related to GBV.

Protecting and upholding human rights for all

Very little attention was paid to Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transsexual/Intersex (LGBTI) issues by the political representatives. When asked about hate crimes, the ANC argued that the media had coined the term hate crime and has therefore worsened the situation; the PAC said that violence is violence, irrespective of who is affected; whereas AZAPO said that there is a need to educate and raise the awareness of families in order to be more accepting of gay or lesbian children.

Sonke feels strongly that more efforts need to be made to create a more accepting society, which, above all, should uphold respect for fellow human beings. The parties’ responses on these issues were cause for concern, particularly the ANC’s response regarding Hate Crimes. Clearly, a great deal of education and awareness needs to be carried out in this regard.

It is important for people to understand what differentiates a hate crime from other crime: a hate crime is characterised by the fact that it was carried out because of the victim’s perceived, or actual, membership to a certain social group, i.e. they are targeted because of their sexuality, race, religion, nationality etc. A hate crime is not committed randomly or accidentally, and is not motivated due to hatred of that particular individual, but rather hatred of the group to which that person belongs or identifies with. The victim is targeted solely on the basis of their identity. Hate crimes are particularly damaging because they can cause all of the members of that group to feel threatened and at risk. This is not a term coined by the media (our Constitution speaks explicitly about Hate Speech), and is a subject that obviously requires far more attention in order to educate people regarding the damage that hate crimes can cause.

A call for accountability and transparency in service delivery

By the end of the dialogue, many of the representatives had admitted that their manifestos do not focus adequately on issues of gender, and committed to rectifying this.

The 18th has come and gone and each community now knows which party won their ward. These parties now need to be held accountable and live up to the promises that they have made.

During the closing minutes of the meeting an older women muttered under her breath,“I hope for heaven’s sake these politicians that are standing in front of us are not lying to us as they often do. I hope they respect those that paid the ultimate price who made this vote to be possible”.

Over the coming months and years, will Orange Farm and other communities see measurable, tangible and much needed change with regards to gender-based violence and HIV and AIDS or will the scepticism deepen? Will local government take the necessary steps to empower women and enlist men as active participants in change?

Sonke will continue to monitor governments’ delivery on its commitments and undertakes to make our services and expertise available as much as possible.