On World AIDS Day

Every year on December 1st, World AIDS Day commemorates individuals who are infected and affected by HIV/AIDS, as well as those who have died from the disease.  In 2009, the theme for World AIDS Day is “Universal Access & Human Rights,” emphasizing the importance of HIV/AIDS as the central human rights issue of our times. The red ribbon is an internationally recognized symbol of support for people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.  Today, in honor of World AIDS Day, please remember to wear a red ribbon, and to take a moment to recognize and acknowledge World AIDS Day through your blog or facebook page.  And please take a few moments to read today’s post, which is a little bit longer than usual.

Today, I am sharing my personal perspective on HIV/AIDS, as founder and director of Tariro.  HIV/AIDS is simultaneously a deeply personal, yet deeply political disease.  What does it mean to be infected?  What does it mean to be affected?  Who is considered an orphan?  Who is made vulnerable by the disease, and how?  These questions are central to understanding the effects of HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe, and guide Tariro’s approach to working with communities affected by the disease.

In Zimbabwe, the prevalence of HIV infection has ranged from between 15-30% of the population in the past decade, some of the highest infection rates in the world.  With these extremely high prevalence rates, it is important to stress that HIV/AIDS affects every individual, community, and family, leaving no one untouched by the disease.

Tariro’s students are among those whose lives have been most deeply affected by the effects of HIV/AIDS.  Many of our students have lost one or both parents to illness, and many others live with an HIV-positive parent.  In some instances, their parents are diagnosed as HIV-positive, or known to have died from HIV-related infections.  Often, however, individuals die without receiving an HIV-positive diagnosis, and the majority of our students do not self-identify as AIDS orphans.  For this reason, Tariro has moved away from the label of “AIDS orphan,” emphasizing instead our mission as one of educating and empowering orphaned and vulnerable children in communities affected by HIV/AIDS.

This approach reflects Tariro’s belief that HIV/AIDS does not simply affect individuals.  Instead, its effects are felt throughout entire communities, which are weakened and made less resilient by the cumulative effects of HIV/AIDS and poverty.  Singing about HIV/AIDS in the song “Todii,” Zimbabwean popular musician Oliver Mtukudzi has observed, “the workers go first, the young go first, only elderly men and women are left.”  Tariro’s students have been affected by HIV/AIDS not only by the loss of their own family members, but also through the loss of teachers, nurses, pastors, and other community leaders.  HIV/AIDS rends the social fabric of entire communities, making all of their members more vulnerable.

Tariro’s approach to addressing HIV/AIDS works to strengthen communities through strengthening girls.  By educating girls, we create young women who can assume leadership roles, and contribute back to their communities.  Working with children is an important way to strengthen and stabilize communities affected by HIV/AIDS.

I’m leaving you with a video of Oliver Mtukudzi’s song “Todii,” written at the height of the HIV epidemic in Zimbabwe in the late 1990s.  “Todii” is a meditative and somber reflection on the effects of HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe.  Despite the challenges, the losses, and the sorrow of losing friends and family who have died of HIV-related illnesses, Tariro’s students continue to inspire me to work toward the future with hope, and I value and appreciate this opportunity to make a tangible difference in the fight against HIV/AIDS through Tariro’s work.  Thank you all for supporting Zimbabwean communities affected by HIV/AIDS through your support of Tariro.

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