I have had the pleasure of working at Sonke Gender Justice Network for the past couple weeks. I have to admit, when I was first assigned to this NGO, I was a bit apprehensive. I knew absolutely nothing about gender issues and I was concerned about how my contributions would actually help South Africans. Before I came here, when I thought about working at an NGO in Africa, I immediately would picture working in destitute area with sick, hungry children. For some reason that was the only issue that would come to mind and thus the only situation I would imagine working in when I finally arrived. However, working at Sonke has opened my eyes a variety of macro level issues that are essential to address if South Africa wants to successfully combat HIV.
During my preliminary research of Sonke, I learned that the organization’s vision was “a world in which men, women and children can enjoy equitable, healthy and happy relationships that contribute to the development of just and democratic societies….it works across Africa to strengthen government, civil society and citizen capacity to support men and boys in taking action to promote gender equality, prevent domestic and sexual violence, and reduce the spread and impact of HIV and AIDS.” I had absolutely no idea what this would mean in terms of helping combat the HIV epidemic and how gender issue were effecting the country. It wasn’t until I started working on my project and interacting with locals that I truly understood the significance of gender issues in the country.
My task during the six weeks was to develop policy reports on South Africa, Rwanda, Uganda, Sierra Leone, and Zambia. In these reports I would have to analyze major policies in the country that addressed engaging men in sexual reproductive health and rights. When I was first assigned the task I wondered why engaging men was so important if male dominance was a cultural norm. As I continued to learn more about the HIV epidemic through class and reading books such as Debunking Delusions, I was able to fully comprehend the magnitude of the work I was doing. Notions of what it means to be a man or woman often discourage individuals from seeking health care services. The current gender norms often encourage high risk and negative behavior that increases both men and women’s vulnerability to HIV and other health issues. If men don’t go to the clinic because they don’t want to look “weak”, they will not learn their HIV status and can infect multiple partners before learning that they are carrying the virus. Thus addressing gender inequalities in policy can improve the health of both women and men.
While reading health policies and learning about the epidemic I have come to realize that HIV is not as black and white as what I had once believed. There are so many more complexities involved that all contribute to the growing disease. Prevention, treatment, testing, and counseling strategies are constantly evolving to adapt to the country and more importantly the people. Working at Sonke and being able to interact with people in the community have truly allowed me to understand the intricacy of HIV and how so much has been accomplished and yet so much still needs to be done.