Rocking the cradle - and the boat

Global funding for HIV/Aids now goes to large international organisations. They need the grassroots organisations to tick their boxes of “community involvement”, but they are corporate entities, and the money for the daily advocacy work of positive women has all but dried up, says Alice Welbourn
Alice Welbourn
7 March 2011

The evidence base is glaring regarding the relative global poverty of women, the numbers of young women in southern Africa with HIV, the links between gender-based violence and HIV.  But unless there is political will to act upon it, you can collate evidence until the cows come home and it won’t make an iota of difference to what governments, multi-nationals and other donors spend their funds on.

On 8 March 2011, I too will be celebrating 100 years of international women’s days – but quietly, gently, reflectively. Where have we reached, how much further do we have to go, where is the energy in us to do so?

100 years feels like a long long time, but in my line of work – HIV – it feels frighteningly short, given that this year we also mark 30 years of this virus on the planet – and I mark 22 years of having it in my own body.  In the world of HIV, many still don’t quite get it that women and girls are affected too – or they still think that it must be for some reason to do with our lifestyles. Yet for each and every one of us who thinks that it is a good idea for our daughters to have the HPV vaccine at school in the UK when she is 12, we need to get real and realize that our daughters too deserve to be educated about how to steer clear of HIV. For that matter, with the increase in oral-pharyngeal cancer in young men in North America, Australia and here in the UK, we ought to be pressing for the HPV vaccine for our sons also. Yes, work that one out.  And for HIV education for them too.

But I digress. My thoughts today are on investment and funding for women and our work. It’s a bit tricky celebrating anything when one’s mind continues to be preoccupied by making ends meet.

I have just been in New York at the annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). I was privileged to be funded to go by UNAIDS, to take part in various panels there. I met up once more with extraordinary positive women from around the world – Anandi Yuvraj from India, Violeta Ross from Bolivia, Lydia Mungherera from Uganda, Inviolata Mbwavi from Kenya, Svetlana Moroz from Ukraine – and others who prefer not to be named. All pioneering ground-breaking feminist human rights defenders, all pushing the boat out in their own regions and globally, all of whom have overcome huge prejudice from their own communities to speak out and challenge attitudes to women with HIV – and all of us struggling for every cent of funding to continue our work.

The last time my organisation received any funds was in late October - £10,000, from a religious NGO. Before that was £11,619 in October, 5 weeks late, from a UN agency, for funds already spent. Before that, we received £4,390, also late, also for funds already spent, for all our work at the Vienna AIDS Conference. For a banker I suspect this sounds like pocket money. Since then, we have received no funds from any organization, despite having funding applications in with four different major donors and promising comments from all four about the value of our proposed work. How are we supposed to survive?

Well on volunteering of course. That’s what we women do.  In just the past 2 months alone, I have written a chapter for an international book on sexual pleasure, finalized a major new version of an international community HIV training programme with 3 co-authors, co-organized and led a session on investing in women and girls at the CSW, chaired a session at a High Level Consultation with three UN agencies (including the newly-launched UNWomen) at the CSW, organized a Round Table Meeting with 50 people at the House of Lords and published it online, co-launched a major global survey, in 7+ languages, for all women and girls to complete, of issues facing us around the world in the preparation for the UN General Assembly on HIV in June, reviewed 14 abstracts for the next big AIDS conference in Rome, reviewed 17 nominations for a young women’s international award next July, organized a major new policy brief issued by networks of positive women around the world, which we launched in New York, finalized an international literature review on women with HIV and gender-based violence; and co-written 3 sections of a pioneering new HIV-positive-women led training toolkit to be launched this summer. I did get personally paid for the last two pieces. All except these was done entirely for free.

And those are just the headline bits of work. They don’t include the daily emails, the committee work, the mothering, the partnering, the daughtering, the trying to be a half-way decent friend to all the wonderful people in my life….

My situation is no different from that of all my women colleagues with whom I work so closely in our virtual life-juggling networks. We spend a good 70% of our time discussing and worrying about how we can make things happen with no funding to back us. We lie awake at night with worry, knowing how much value our work brings to other positive women around the world, because they have repeatedly told us so – because we live in the global North and because our relative poverty compares not a jot with their absolute poverty. We all feel the weight of their - wildly disproportionate - appreciation for what we struggle to do. This lies very heavily upon our narrow shoulders, since it brings home to us all the more how much needs to be done and how little can be managed with so little support. My husband tells me that I work at least 30% harder than he – a highly respected family doctor – has ever done in his working life. But I work no less than my many female colleagues, who also put in long hours of over-time in our efforts to bring about social justice and transformation. When I work, I feel like I have one hand tied behind my back and half my brain drugged because of the constant preoccupation with how to find the funds to do the work we want to do. Some donors say to us “your work sounds like a really good idea, but I’m afraid it doesn’t fit into the sector that we work in”…. but that’s the whole point. Life isn’t linear – especially women’s lives – no matter how much others may want it to be. Women’s lives are rich and complex, diverse and inter-leaved. We don’t just exist and think in boxes of health or education, the law or micro-credit. We live, breathe and thrive in multi-coloured realms of infinite dimensions, our bodies, feelings, thoughts and emotions all caught up in an interplay which no-one can tack down. These are our lives –  and how those of us faced with mortality have learnt to value them - and yet we are expected to squeeze them, respectfully into “logical frameworks” for donors, who can only think in boxes, where any accidental seepage over the edge of a box, any unmeasurable value such as pain, grief, fear, spirit, resilience.... dare not be whispered, and needs to be firmly quashed from the lines of proposals. No wonder depression also runs deep for so many of us.

Meanwhile, what has happened to global funding for HIV and AIDS? Well you have guessed it already – it has gone down and down. Donors’ ways of spending have also changed. So over the past ten years grants from DfID, for example, have grown far fewer and much larger in size and the staff to manage them have been decimated. Thus only the few large international NGOs have the capacity and reserves to apply for these grants – which can take many months to process – let alone the capacity to spend them. Yes, the development world, these days, is big business and tactics of engagement reflect this. These large NGOs have, in turn – and by necessity – become proxy donors to many implementing agencies. So the widely versed concept of “partnership” is very far from the hierarchical realities of accountability and ownership. The international organizations need us small fry to tick their boxes of “community involvement” but they are now corporate entities also and those in them who actually respect our work and efforts are increasingly rare. Several of my women colleagues around the world – and myself included – have witnessed with shock and awe, how influential INGOs come along, take great interest in our ideas and activities – and then launch them as their own, with no mention of their origins or our endeavours. Yet no matter how much they exclude us from their work, they know that they need to keep on coming back to us, since it is we who have the trust and the ear of those whom we work with. Nothing can take that away from us.  The evidence base is glaring regarding the relative global poverty of women, the numbers of young women in southern Africa with HIV, the links between gender-based violence and HIV, both before and after diagnosis, the coerced sterilization of women with HIV (which is a considerably more invasive operation than forced vasectomy for men with HIV would be…) and constant abuse of our other sexual and reproductive rights. Yet the blunt fact remains that, unless there is political will there to acknowledge it and act upon it, you can collate evidence until the cows come home and it won’t make an iota of difference to what governments, multi-nationals and other donors spend their funds on.

So on International Women’s Day, I hope for so much for the next generation – for our daughters and grand- daughters. I have so much respect for their vivacity, their energy, their hope and inspiration. I yearn for a world where big banks and big bankers might empty even their pockets to commit to funding the poorest, most oppressed and most marginalized around them in society – where they can count their achievements not in how many houses, cars, yachts, jets they own, but in how much of their earnings they have ploughed back into making a more just and equitable society for us all. They can’t take it with them. Bankers nurture money. Women nurture life, love and the future. We women around the world have rocked their cradles and will tend their graves – and we will go on rocking the boat also.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if, this International Women's Day, these bankers started rocking the boat with us - until a just, equitable and women-friendly society is truly here - for all our souls.


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