How do you spend your time as an old age pensioner ?

I work as a glorified concierge, answering questions as to where and when the test can be done, I encourage those who might not be brave enough to get this test, I hand out condoms...

Maria Jonas
15 July 2010

A frequently asked question - not by my friends who did not expect anything different - but by others: people I meet when doing my stint at an information stall (and there have been very many of those in the past 13 years), when facilitating information sessions for UN staff in Vienna on the issue of HIV/AIDS, when total strangers ask how I spend my free time as an old age pensioner. The latter being a bizarre question since I do not feel retired.

How can one retire when one spent a professional life-time in politics, serving those who are usually either the weakest in society or the ones marginalised, often ostracised, despised, even feared? Without wanting to boast I am proud to have been on their side all my life: fighting for women's rights, human rights for migrants, equal rights for gays. How could I not have been behind those who are hiding their diagnosis, who lose their jobs because of it, who lose their friends, their place in society?

When the Aidshilfehaus (AidsHelpHouse) opened in December 1997 I enquired about the need for volunteers and was duly trained. I am 70 years old. Since then I worked and still do that once a week as a glorified concierge, answering questions as to where and when the test can be done, I encourage those who might not be brave enough to get this test, I hand out condoms, and generally hope to be a trustworthy first contact when people are in need of understanding, of being supported in their decision to deal with their fear of having contracted HIV out of carelessness, thoughtlessness or having been coerced into sexual activity.

On and around 1 December I am one of those who collect money for extra-curricular activities of the Aidshilfehaus - at the State Opera, in theatres, concert halls, and I am usually astonished and pleasurably surprised that mostly those patrons who can not cough up for expensive tickets are the ones who are most generous. The misers are to be found at the top end of the price per seat scale. Apart from slightly shrinking away when I - and co-volunteers - approach them and have our say about World Aids Day, some of them assume and explicitly ask if I - or co-volunteers - have AIDS. They simply cannot imagine that there are human beings who have the political will, the compassion and the required gumption to stand up for those who have every reason to fear the public. HIV is still such a taboo I am ashamed to say that very few of those who have it dare to speak out/come out with the truth. I often wonder what would happen in a packed underground train or bus if someone was to get up and say in a voice so that all can hear it:" I have HIV / I have AIDS".  I bet most people would turn away in disgust and wonder if they just 'caught' the virus.

I realise that few people have the guts and the commitment of doing that kind of volunteer work, but there is a chance that AIDS2010 being held in Vienna will not only focus attention on the issue as such, but will also generate more people giving time and energy to the cause of those still discriminated against.

I shall enjoy helping in the Women’s Networking Zone in the Global Village, which is open to everyone, and do look forward to the experience of meeting people from around the world. This will be more enlightening for me than attending the big conference, which is only for registered delegates. Marching for Human Rights is of course also on my ‘schedule’.

In the political environment - mine is the social democratic/labour one - I do as much as I can to raise the issue, to draft motions, to mobilise; also of course in the NGO community. Not only providing information and promoting awareness-raising about the virus but specifically in the context of women and their high vulnerability, especially in countries where women's education and empowerment are minimal.

Born in 1940 in Austria, a country devastated by war - and a deathly ideology which the country still has to get out of people's brains - I studied languages to become a teacher. Which then did not happen. Instead I worked as secretary, then successfully trying my hand and head at journalism (politics and art in a daily paper). All the while being active in the SPOe (the Austrian Social Democratic Party). Elected as General Secretary of Socialist International Women (headquartered in London), I enjoyed that work and the experience of travelling around the world, meeting women and listening to them, for nearly ten years. Now, back in my country, I am still active, mostly in NGOs focusing on women, migrants and refugees.




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