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Grandmothers’ summit to put spotlight on Africa’s ‘forgotten victims’ of Aids

May 4, 2010

Representatives from 12 countries meet in Swaziland to highlight the impact of Aids on grandparents’ lives

Children orphaned by Aids at a care centre in Cape TownSouth African Aids orphans: the grandmothers summit will discuss the impact of losing adult children, becoming head of a household and raising grandchildren as their own Photograph: Schalk Van Zuydam/AP

Their collective wisdom is incalculable – and so is the collective burden they carry when families are torn apart by Aids.

Africa’s newest special interest group is that of grandmothers. They will attend their first special conference this week to share experiences and call for international recognition of their uniquely difficult circumstances.

A summit of grandparents in the west might prompt jokes about bingo and dentures, but the inaugural African Grandmothers’ Gathering, starting in Swaziland on Thursday, is a gravely serious affair.

More than 450 grandmothers from 12 African countries will meet to discuss the impact of losing adult children to Aids, becoming the head of a household and raising grief-stricken grandchildren as their own.

These forgotten victims hope to build a “solidarity movement” across Africa to make the case that grandmothers need targeted support from international donors and aid agencies.

“It’s a lost group, a lost voice,” said Philile Mlotshwa of Swapol (Swaziland Positive Living), which is organising the event in partnership with the Canadian-based Stephen Lewis Foundation . “They are the heroes yet no one has gone to them to say we recognise your efforts.”

The organisers say it is time to heed the “indomitable and indefatigable” grandmothers who step forward to care for children, sometimes as many as 10 to 15 in one household. “They are holding together the social fabric of communities across the continent.”

Mlotshwa continued: “Grandparents have always played an important role in solving disputes and as a source of knowledge. But now the younger generation is not there: people aged 29 to 49 are dying from HIV-Aids We are seeing a demographic of the elderly and the very young who’ve lost their parents.”

She added: “Grandmothers are at the frontline of the HIV-Aids impact. They have to pick up the pieces and move on. They don’t have time to grieve because the children need to be looked after. They are doing this without any income.

“They are not healthy people: they are sick with diabetes and high blood pressure. We are seeing women who are carrying on in spite of the challenges and the fear of what will happen to these grandchildren if they die.”

Mlotshwa said she hoped the gathering would raise awareness of grandmothers’ needs. “Various responses to HIV-Aids have been designed but not yet targeted at them.”

The grandmothers are likely to seek international support for grief counselling, access to healthcare for themselves and children in their care, safe and adequate housing, economic security, safety from gender-based violence, raising community awareness and breaking stigma, support in raising grief-stricken grandchildren and access to education for children.

Grandmothers from Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe will be represented.

Among them will be “Mama” Darlina Tyawana, who has six grandchildren and is taking care of her late sister’s grandchild in Cape Town. “There are a lot of grandparents raising children because the parents died from HIV,” the 63-year-old said. “They are taking them to school, paying the school fees and carrying other burdens.”

Tyawana, who works as a counsellor helping parents overcome the stigma of HIV, added: “We’ve got a battle because we don’t only look after our own children. We also give a hand to the community and give education to other grandparents and people with HIV.”

The African grandmothers will be joined by a delegation of 42 Canadian grandmothers from the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which supports community-based organisations fighting HIV/Aids in Africa. The Queen Mother and prime minister of Swaziland will also attend the conference in Manzini, on from 6 to 8 May.

Stephen Lewis, chair of the foundation, said: “Grandmothers unsung heroes of Africa. These magnificently courageous women bury their own children and then look after their orphaned grandchildren, calling on astonishing reserves of love and emotional resilience.”

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  1. Gender Across Borders

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