Grandmothers at the heart of response to AIDS: Grandmothers and Grandothers

The Coast Reporter. By Jan Degrass. December 8, 2016.

Gail Wilen (fourth from right) visits a grandmother’s home in Zambia. 

In July 2016, Gail Wilen of Sechelt took the trip of a lifetime, not as a tourist but as a grandmother. As part of the Sunshine Coast’s group of Grandmothers and Grandothers, she travelled to Zambia and South Africa along with other representatives of the Stephen Lewis Foundation (SLF), an organization that has been pushing back on the AIDS crisis in Africa.

“Grandmothers are at the heart of response to the AIDS pandemic in Africa,” she told the audience at a presentation in Gibsons on Nov. 20. Coincidentally the 20th had been designated universal Children’s Day by the United Nations, and it is the children who have suffered by being orphaned by AIDS. Grandmothers have watched their own children die from the illness and have been left no choice but to take over the role of parent to their grandchildren.

“A generation has been lost,” Wilen said.

The Stephen Lewis Foundation Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign is a dynamic movement of thousands of grandparents in 240 groups across Canada and other countries. Launched in 2006, the Campaign was a Canadian grassroots response to the emerging crisis faced by African grandmothers as they struggled to care for millions of orphaned children.

The SLF visitors to Africa paid their own air fare and were toured around to visit families in their homes. Wilen and the others were welcomed with song at each stop and they learned much about the lives of the Africans. They shared food with them, traded pictures of their grandchildren, learned some of their crafts and saw how they worked to make small food gardens in poor soil.

The stories continued to roll out during their trip: one grandmother had eight children, all dead, and now 12 grandchildren to care for. Another kept ten children in her one room home. Others have suffered when members of the family blamed the wife for her husband’s AIDS death and she was forced to leave her home. Some children have been sent to orphanages. In other homes when grandmothers are too old to care for the kids, the oldest child must become the head of the household.

At school there were often three students to one desk – still an improvement on previous classrooms where they sat on concrete floors. Some children are HIV positive but are now taking antiretroviral drugs that may be saving their lives. The SLF has funded some provision of these drugs so those children will not have the same death sentence as their parents. Funds from the foundation go towards grass roots projects, initiatives that are working hard to educate the community, putting their kids through school, creating support groups to manage grief, and delivering comfort and hope through home-based care. The projects teach others about HIV prevention and treatment, create local savings and loan groups, and sit on land-rights councils.

After Zambia, Wilen went to South Africa to arrive one day before a world AIDS conference was to take place, and she marched with other grandmothers in a show of support. “We can use our collective voice to support their work and raise funds,” she said, adding that the women she met there were courageous advocates for their community and “heroes of the continent.”

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