South Africa: HIV/AIDS Solutions (3/99)

Fifty women, most middle-aged, married, and Black, gathered last fall in an unlikely place – Rand Afrikaans University (RAU), once one of South Africa’s most relentlessly White institutions. They participated in a rare event, an AIDS education workshop designated exclusively for women. And they came together largely through the efforts of a remarkable scientist and activist, Debra Meyer. Barely in her thirties, Meyer is already in the vanguard of those leading "the new South Africa."

In 1997, Meyer, having completed her Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of California at Davis, returned home to take up a post at RAU as senior lecturer – the only woman and the only Black in the faculty of sciences.

Fighting racism at RAU and elsewhere is an old story for her. As a teenager, she was already involved in the anti-apartheid student movement, first as a lookout and later in leadership roles. A dozen years ago she was among the first Blacks to enroll when RAU reversed its White-only policy. "There were more than 5000 White students and only about 20 of us," she explains. "We were not very welcome."

But more international media were focusing on South Africa in the mid-1980s, and the university "decided to make this big concession by allowing Black students to come to their super-White university. It was definitely a PR move on their part," Meyer says.

AIDS education is a natural outgrowth of Meyer’s research in HIV vaccine development. As a graduate student in the early 1990s, she began to suspect that the reported rates of HIV infection for South Africa were artificially low. "There were people who knew that this was going to be devastating in the future," she says, "but the fight was political then. No one paid attention to health issues." By then, enough was known about transmission of HIV and AIDS that, as Meyer notes, "nobody else should become infected."

This was not, however, the reality. One reason why, she knew, was education – or more specifically, its lack. "South Africans need to have access to this type of information, so very early on I knew that this was something I should be doing."

Back home, not everyone was so sure, and initially many people in her community (Eldoradopark, a township outside Johannesburg) resisted the idea of AIDS education. "People in my community are very religious, and do not like talking about anything of a sexual nature."

Her workshops were designed for teenagers, one of South Africa’s highest risk groups, so Meyer approached church youth groups and high schools. Opposition from principals, parents, and church leaders was strong, and in order to get in the door Meyer knew she had to make concessions. "I could not bring condoms with me," she recalls, "but I could show pictures, and tell kids where to get them, and how to use them properly."

Meyer also had a second strategy. Because of her achievements – study abroad on a Fulbright scholarship, a doctorate, a prestigious university post – she is often asked by community leaders to give motivational talks to high school students. "I tell them, sure, I’ll do it, but you must then allow me to talk to the kids about AIDS."

No one has yet turned her down. From the start, it was clear that the teenagers were hungry for information, although some parents still instructed their children not to attend the workshops. Nonetheless, word began to spread. She started getting invitations, even from clergy, and late last year a local preacher asked Meyer to give a presentation he had entitled "AIDS, Killer of our Age."

When she arrived there were over 2000 people packed into the auditorium, waiting.

Women in general, even more than teenagers, are at enormously high risk for HIV, so Meyer’s work with them takes on a special urgency. The group at RAU listens attentively as she cites one devastating statistic after another. (See box on page 6.) "You must protect yourself," she warns. "You have to insist upon respect and take responsibility for your own life."

Her audience is attentive, but also slightly distant, as if it is all too abstract. Then, a collective gasp as her final statistic hits home: "In South Africa, 80 percent of the women becoming infected are married or in stable relationships. Eighty percent."

Meyer’s conversational tone belies her anger as she explains ways that women can "be in control … . [Men] think they can rule … in any sexual situation. But your life is important. Do not think that you must do whatever he says [if he refuses condoms]. Female condoms are available at the pharmacy. And there are many men. You can get another. If you are married, use these statistics. Tell him, especially if you have or plan to have children, that ÔI have no intention of dying … because of a disease you picked up walking around.’"

Fighting gender inequality is, for Meyer, on a par with fighting racism. As a first step she established EWOC (Empowering Women of Colour), an organization that emphasizes "self-analysis, self-worth, and improving life skills by breaking down racial barriers."

There remain divisions among many women of differing tribal and ethnic backgrounds – another scar from apartheid. She wants EWOC to be a catalyst for women to begin to overcome these animosities.

Her women’s workshop, sponsored by EWOC, advanced that goal. In the audience were coloured (South African parlance for racially mixed) women, Blacks from several different tribes, and even a smattering of Whites.

"You’d be amazed," suggests Meyer, "how peoples’ attitudes change if you take the time to educate them," a strategy she uses in public – and private. Not long ago, her mother Patricia, a deeply religious woman, was adamantly opposed to her daughter giving AIDS workshops. At the same time, Patricia Meyer had always taught her children – she has 10 – that with education "you can solve everything."

Mother and daughter clearly found a solution by the time of the EWOC workshop. As Debra Meyer gave her talk that day, Patricia Meyer, and the dozen friends she brought along, beamed with pride from the second row – that is, when they were not busy taking notes.

Rhonda Zangwill is the senior writer for the Institute of International Education in New York City and a volunteer for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.