It’s terrifying to imagine what Africa would look like today if the grandmothers had not stepped up when they did to care for an entire generation of children left orphaned by AIDS.
“I think it would be absolutely true to say that African grandmothers are literally holding the continent of Africa together with such courage and such joy,” Canadian grandmother Elizabeth Rennie told Xtra before accepting an award on behalf of the Grandmothers Advocacy Network (GRAN) at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and Human Rights Watch 2013 Awards for Action on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights, held Dec 1 at the Bram and Bluma Appel Salon.
“The grandmothers are strong, resilient women with endless compassion.”
Established in 2006 as a legacy of the 16th International AIDS Conference, held in Toronto, the grassroots network of volunteer grandmothers and “grand-others” work in solidarity with the grandmothers of Africa who are caring for the more than 15 million children orphaned by AIDS.
“It is grandmothers who are doing so much to keep people going, even at the expense of their own health and well-being,” says Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. “These are women, who, at this stage in their life, shouldn’t have to become parents all over again after watching their own children die in terrible numbers.”
The Stephen Lewis Foundation held the first international Grandmothers’ Gathering on the eve of the AIDS conference in Toronto. One hundred Africans and 200 Canadian grandmothers gathered for three days of workshops, run by the grandmothers themselves. They discussed topics ranging from grief to fundraising, and from stigma to the care of children orphaned by AIDS.
“It was there that the Canadian grandmothers declared, ‘We will not rest until they can rest,’” Elliott says. “And GRAN has indeed not been resting. They are an extraordinarily powerful group of allies.”
GRAN conducts persistent and determined advocacy with the Canadian government and works to expand Canadian and international support for AIDS prevention, care, treatment and support in sub-Saharan Africa.
“We promote human rights, advocate against gender violence and violence against children,” Rennie says. “We are their voice.”
GRAN has sent thousands of postcards to MPs, written letters, visited the MPs, held rallies and even marched on Parliament to demand access to medication and support for people living with HIV/AIDS.
Rennie says African grandmothers needed a Canadian voice to fight to get crucial legislation passed in the House of Commons, such as Bill C-398, which would have reformed Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime (CAMR) to make it easier to get Canadian generic medicines to developing countries. The bill was defeated in 2012 by only seven votes.
“We spoke in one strong voice saying that we could save lives,” she says. “When we lost the bill we cried many tears. But it also brought new determination. As one MP said before the vote, ‘You don’t mess with the grandmothers.’”
GRAN is currently calling on the Canadian government to increase its contribution to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria by 50 percent. That decision is expected imminently at the Replenishment Conference, taking place in Washington Dec 2 and 3.
Canada was a founding member of the Global Fund and has donated $150 million over the past three years but has not yet made any future pledge of support.
At the last replenishment, Canada pledged $540 million. “We hope that this time our government will pledge at least $750 million over three years,” Rennie says.
Canada’s first openly gay MP, Svend Robinson, who now puts his political skills and parliamentary knowledge to work for the Global Fund, was the evening’s keynote speaker.
“While we’ve made overall such huge progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS,” Robinson said, “the reality is, for many key populations — like LGBT people, prisoners, sex workers, IV drug users, migrants — in some areas we’re moving backwards. In Eastern Europe, for example, the number of infections is increasing.”
Over the past 30 years, 25 million people have died of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, an overwhelming number that has devastated families and communities living in unimaginable poverty, Rennie says.
The second award of the evening was an international award presented to Yves Yomb, executive director of Alternatives-Cameroon, a group that’s on the front lines fighting for human rights for people living with HIV and challenging homophobia in the West African country, one of the most hostile places for LGBT people in the world. (Watch Xtra's video interview with Yomb.)
“I come from a country where people are killed for being gay,” Yomb says. “It’s very difficult to be gay in Cameroon because [the country] criminalizes homosexuality in the penal code.”
“We have an attack every day,” he told Xtra. “Our health centre was burned. We tried to complain to the police, but we still have no result in the investigation. It’s just very difficult.”
Cameroon has the highest rate of arrests of LGBT people in the world, he says. In the face of this, Yomb’s group refuses to be silenced and is an essential resource for many LGBT people in the country.
“We hope that those [gay and lesbian people] who come after us will benefit from this fight. And we hope for peace in Africa. We hope one day people can just live their life without being criminalized simply because they are gay, simply because they behave as a woman or simply because they want to live as everyone else wants to live.”
In July, activist and journalist Eric Lembembe, the executive director of the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS, was brutally tortured and murdered in his home. Police investigations have failed to identify a suspect in the murder, and the government refuses to acknowledge the attack as a hate crime.
“We are involved in advocacy to hopefully change the situation of gay life in Cameroon,” Yomb says. “We try to make connections with those who are rejected by their families for being gay. It is so difficult for them. We try to make sure they have a lawyer to defend them when they are arrested for being gay.”
As is the case in many other African countries, fundamentalist religious groups shoulder much of the blame for spreading hate against LGBT people in Cameroon and ensuring the laws stay on the books, Yomb says.
“The church plays a very, very bad role in this,” he says. “Christians and Muslims — I wish they would preach for peace and not hate.”