Last Updated: Wednesday - 01/05/2011
November 26, 2001
World AIDS Day - Dec. 1
Co-ops help Uganda rebuild from AIDS devastation
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
It is a human catastrophe like no other. Years in the making, it has gathered momentum like a runaway locomotive. At its epicentre, in the countries of East and Southern Africa, it is threatening to lay to waste entire segments of society.
Unlike other natural calamities, which announce themselves with the drama of a hurricane or an earthquake, AIDS has slipped in quietly, sheathed in shame and misinformation. Far from receiving an outpouring of sympathy and support, its victims are often stigmatized, abused and neglected.
The numbers are horrific. AIDS has been with us for just 20 years, but already it is killing more people than any other infectious disease.
In a single year, more than two million Africans died of AIDS, 10 times the number who perished in wars and armed conflict during the same period. More than 33 million people are already infected. Ninety-five per cent of infected people live in developing countries.
There are 12 countries in sub-Saharan Africa where adult HIV infection rates are over 10 per cent. In Botswana and Zimbabwe, more than 25 per cent of young adults are HIV positive. In sub-Saharan Africa 55 per cent of the HIV positive adults are women, and 70 per cent of them are between the ages of 15 and 24. The disease has left more than 11 million orphans, 90 per cent of them in Africa.
Most African cultures are built around the concept of strong extended families. It is not uncommon for children to be raised by aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins. Yet in many families there are no living adults to care for children. The result is the growing phenomenon of child-headed households.
Africa may be hardest hit, but infection rates are increasing rapidly in China, India, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Central and Eastern Europe.
South Africa, which has long denied its growing AIDS crisis, is suffering some of the most dramatic AIDS-related social problems. A succession of harmful myths continues to circulate in the country.
One of the most devastating, which still holds sway in some areas, is that infected men can cure themselves by having sex with virgin children. The result is an epidemic of child rape, with the added consequence that many of the young victims are also infected — tragedy is compounding tragedy.
For co-operatives, particularly in Africa, the time when the AIDS crisis could be ignored has long-since passed. In late August, co-operative leaders from sub-Saharan Africa, accompanied by government and health officials, met in Swaziland to discuss The Role of Co-operatives in the Fight Against HIV/AIDS.
The conference was sponsored by the Canadian Co-operative Association, the International Co-operative Alliance, and the International Labour Organization.
One commitment, shared by all of the co-operative organizations represented, was to use their broad reach to provide members with accurate, practical information about the disease.
Since the late 1980s, Ugandan co-operatives have used their networks to educate members about AIDS, but they have also taken other steps. One of the first countries to be devastated by AIDS, Uganda has also been one of the most courageous in facing up to the crisis. It is the only country in the region that has seen a significant decrease in its infection rate.
With help from the Canadian Co-operative Association, The Uganda Co-operative Alliance established a loan program 10 years ago geared towards women to help them finance small businesses. One of the great incentives for this program was the number of single women attempting to care for large numbers of AIDS orphans.
In one case, a teacher who was supporting more than 50 children, made the difficult decision to spend her meagre resources on food and education. Most of the children had little or no clothing, but she reasoned that is was better to develop their minds so they would have some chance of supporting themselves as adults. The loans and accompanying training helped women like her to increase their incomes to better meet these crushing demands.
Aine Costigan was the CCA program officer when the women's program in Uganda was established. For the past several years she has worked in Kenya on a CIDA-funded HIV prevention program.
Costigan believes co-ops can offer a lot in the fight against AIDS. "I think co-ops provide a very good framework for self-help based response to HIV," she said in an interview.
She sees home care co-operatives, such as the one being launched in South Africa, as one valuable contribution. Another might be co-operative or communal kitchens to ensure adequate nutrition in child-headed households.
One impact of the disease is that school dropout rates go up, especially for young girls who are pulled out of school to take care of sick or dying parents or younger siblings. Co-operatives could provide some of those services, allowing children to continue to attend school.
"I do think co-ops have a fantastic potential to help people cope with HIV/AIDS," said Costigan, "if only they could wake up and smell the virus."
(These articles were written as part of a collective World AIDS Day effort by CARE Canada, Cooperation Canada Mozambique, the Interagency Coalition on AIDS and Development, and Partnership Africa Canada. World AIDS Day is Dec. 1.)
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