The International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA) has finally begun after months of anticipation. Hotels, lodges, and guest rooms across Harare are packed with international participants.Members of ZRP’s tourism unit,conspicuous in their neon green vests;are out in full force, and the Harare International Conference Centre (HICC) is freshly made-over.
The build-up to ICASA has been accompanied by endless discussions about what the conference will do for “brand Zimbabwe.” It has been said over and over again that the net result will be overwhelmingly good for the country,good for our tourism industry and for our image in the world.
But what will ICASA mean for Zimbabwe’s women? After all, women’ bodies have been cast as central actors in the public discourse concerning the spread of HIV/AIDS and STIs. All at once, we have been positioned as mahure (harlots) spreading the disease to unsuspecting men. Long-suffering wives infected by wayward husbands Ddutiful caregivers of ailing relatives, and widows and grandmothers are left struggling to manage households full of hungry children. All the while, we have borne the brunt of the disease, with Zimbabwean women accounting for 60% of people aged 15 and above living with HIV.
So this conference which has been sold to us as an incredible opportunity for Zimbabwe should speak to the conditions that make us the face of AIDS in this country . For several decades now, Zimbabwean feminists have been pushing us to pay attention to the intersections of race, class, and sexuality that make women especially vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases. This is an old conversation, but we have yet to grapple with the way that class and culture so often collude to expose many of us to sexual violence. Despite years of HIV-awareness education, culturally-enforced silences around sexuality still deny women the right to be full agents who not only control but enjoy their bodies.
Moreover, an inability to confront the reality that sexuality is not neat and tidy,that many of us are queer, engaging in sex work, are not monogamous or otherwise uninterested in traditional family structuresharms women. We can and often do acknowledge these realities in our private conversations, but they are yet to become commonly accepted facts that shape our public discourse. Instead, we get repeated warnings for us to dress conservatively in order to avoid rape, statements that guarantee that we will continue to be seen as responsible for spreading STIs, even when we are the victims of sexual violence.
What we need is not policing, but decriminalisation of sex work, sexual education that does not shame us, policies that acknowledge the real labour of caring for sick relatives, and reproductive healthcare that is centred on our needs, not abstract notions of culture and tradition.
Given the prohibitively high costs of attending the conference, many Zimbabweans are unlikely to hear any of the conversations happening at ICASA, even though many people have been empowered to speak for and about us. And so ICASA might just end up being a tourism spectacle meant to usher in the holiday season. As the conference continues this week, it is clear that events and organisations that appear to cater for women’s issues are profitable and good for aesthetics. But advancing a feminist agenda should not just be part of “brand Zimbabwe.” It should be a continued social and political commitment. After all the tourists’ cheques have cleared, women will have to continue to advocate, impatiently and loudly for meaningful action that improves our lives in this country.
Main image taken from saafrica.org
This article was written by Rudo Mudiwa. Rudo is a PhD student completing a dissertation on Gender and Public Space in Harare