Peace of mind,
piece of land

 Noeleen Heyzer
describes the impact of AIDS on women and girls and calls for specific measures to give them access to land and water.

When the devastation of AIDS enters a household, it is the women who take on the burden of added responsibilities. In hard-hit communities all over the globe, women are caring for sick and dying family members around the clock, while trying to fulfil their regular household responsibilities, such as child care, household maintenance and food preparation. In sub-Saharan Africa, where the epidemic has hit with terrible ferocity, women not only prepare the food, they also grow it. When women farmers are pulled out of production, many households are pushed to the brink of starvation.

Women’s ability to shoulder these extra tasks falters most dramatically when it comes to the three life sustaining essentials: water, food and land. It is not uncommon for women in rural areas to spend a good part of their day collecting water, entailing hours of walking. A rural woman interviewed in southern Africa told UNIFEM it took 24 buckets of water to care for a full-blown AIDS patient every day. This is not hard to fathom: because of severe diarrhoea patients must be washed – and clothes and bedding laundered – five, six or more times a day.

Deadly scenario
As women’s days are spent fetching water, preparing food and cleaning patients, there is less time to perform the tasks that sustain life, such as cultivating crops or earning a small income. A study in South Africa, for instance, showed that in almost half the households surveyed the primary care-giver for an AIDS patient had taken time off from formal or informal employment, or from schooling. Women and girls may lose as much as 60 per cent of time from other housework or cultivation tasks, affecting the ability of poor households to grow food for consumption or sale.

To make things worse, the widows of men who have already died from the disease no longer have land to grow the food that will keep them alive, because in many places single and widowed women are denied the right to own land and property in their own name. When combined with poverty and gender inequality, HIV/AIDS creates a deadly scenario for women and their families.

Even when family members are in hospital, women must often provide care and food, because of inadequate and under-resourced public health programmes. When a UNIFEM NGO partner in Tanzania was asked how she convinces policy makers that women’s labour cannot continue to be taken for granted she explained that she tells them: ‘sit outside Muhimbili Hospital [in Dar Es Salaam] for one day and watch the women go in and out, in and out, bearing food and clean clothes, taking their caring responsibilities right into the hospital.’ She asks them to think about what this means for each woman who must leave work at home to travel to and from the hospital and provide many hours of care each day.
Poverty and gender discrimination have turned a devastating disease into a social and economic crisis
If women themselves are sick from AIDS-related illnesses – as they are in ever-increasing numbers – how much harder is it to cope with the additional care-giving responsibilities that AIDS places upon them? Where is the time to take even a part-time job, or buy and sell goods in the marketplace? Where is the possibility for the children, particularly girls, to go to school when needed to help in the home? What possibilities are there for young women and girls to compensate for the increased poverty that AIDS brings?

The impact on the household of women’s increased care-giving burden has broad implications, and must ultimately be dealt with at the policy level. Governments must urgently provide adequately staffed hospital wards or clinics to care for AIDS patients and take legislative and other measures to address women’s need for access to land, food and water.

There have been some encouraging steps. Several countries, for example, have passed laws or simply encouraged communities to support women’s rights to own land and other property. When refugees and displaced people began to return home at the end of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, widows and unmarried women faced a crisis: without husbands or fathers they had no access to land. Women’s organizations began to advocate changes in the law. UNIFEM supported the Forum of Women Parliamentarians, helping it create a Parliamentary Gender Desk that paved the way for gender-sensitive legislation. In 2001, following an intensive lobbying campaign, the Parliament adopted a new inheritance and succession law guaranteeing women and girls the right to inherit land and property.

Claiming rights
Such laws are a necessary starting point – but not all that is needed, as can be seen in Zimbabwe. Although Zimbabwe has passed a law allowing women to own land, the practice of deferring to custom in matters of land and property means it is rarely enforced. The UNIFEM Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women – by supporting the Network of Zimbabwean Positive Women – helped Nyaradzo Makambanga claim her right to land. When she became ill from AIDS-related diseases in 1998 she was sent away by her husband who refused to support her. All of the land was in his name. ‘I was shattered. My hopes and dreams had come to an end,’ she says. ‘I thought I was going to die and leave my children.’

With the help of the Network she learned about the laws and practices governing women’s right to own land, as well as how to work around them. With new-found confidence she approached her village chief who agreed to assign her a plot of land to cultivate. She was able to purchase seeds through the Network’s revolving fund and her new life began. She later took on the role of advising women in similar predicaments. ‘I would not want to see other women go through the difficulties I went through because of ignorance,’ she says. ‘If I had known that I had my own rights, even though I was married, I would not have ended up being HIV-positive. What women need is peace of mind and a piece of land to cultivate and be equal to men.’

But land rights are only one part of the policy and legislative changes that are needed. Water, which is critical, is in increasingly short supply in many countries; even more alarming, it is increasingly subject to privatization. As access to water becomes more and more difficult, women will have to spend even more time trying to collect it.

Beyond this, funding to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS must be specifically targeted to women. Poverty and gender discrimination have turned a devastating disease into a social and economic crisis. Ending the crisis requires the infusion of serious resources into programmes that promote gender equality and women’s empowerment, programmes that are grounded in the knowledge and experience of women living and working in communities.

If we lose this moment, the future will be bleak for the vast majority of women in developing countries who are increasingly both affected and infected by HIV/AIDS. If we act as we can and must, the year 2015 could mark the taking of great strides towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals of eradicating poverty and HIV/AIDS and supporting gender equality. And we will be able to take pride in helping to realize Nyaradzo Makambanga’s wish for women the world over: peace of mind, a piece of land and equality with men

Noeleen Heyzer is Executive Director, UNIFEM.


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Miles to go before we relax | Practical consensus | Power shift | Equally effective | People | Peace of mind, piece of land | The young ones | Fuelling change | At a glance: Women, health and the environment | Aishwarya Rai | Unprecedented opportunity | Books and products | Chemical inheritance | Toxic trespass | First empower | Citizen engagement | Adding feminine perspective | After all ‘nature’ is female... | A unique voice

Complementary issues:
Culture, values and the environment 1996
Water 1996
Fresh Water 1998
Poverty, Health and the Environment 2001
World Summit on Sustainable Development 2002
Freshwater 2003
Water, Sanitation, People 2004

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population and natural resources