Creating coalitions which slice across divisions and prevent infighting between organisations dedicated to combating AIDS and/or violence against women and children has become the passionate lifework of Sally Fisher, founder of Intersect.
Her workshop yesterday on Intersect’s HIV/violence against women and girls project, launched last year in South Africa, drew only two dozen disparate participants, but every one shared similar frustrations and difficulties.
Fisher’s path to her present key role began with her holding creativity workshops for actors in the United States in the early 1980s when HIV rocked the creative arts, sowing confusion and mayhem in her close-knit, mainly gay circle of friends and colleagues.
By 1986 she had adapted her workshops to help actors deal with the budding pandemic.
“It was pretty dramatic, we had one workshop with 22 men and one woman, a nurse holding the IV drip for one guy, and at the end people stood up and said what they were going to do with the rest of their lives. Some of them are still alive today.” Fisher told the workshop.
As the pandemic spread, the stories brought in by her workshop participants became “increasingly horrendous, with violence, rape and incest commonplace,” and the profile of her workshop again changed, to address women living with violence.
Fisher creates empathy with fellow workshop participants from the outset, describing working with AIDS as “very often like pushing a boulder uphill.”
Intersect was born out of the realisation that “if we could all come together around where women, girls, violence and HIV intersect we could form a monumental sign post.”
Her idea became a reality with a seed grant from V-Day and her international experience in founding the Actors’ Institute, co-founding the Northern Lights Alternative and AIDS Mastery Workshops has made coalition-building second nature to her.
Fisher launched Intersect in South Africa in February last year and is enthusiastic about the “amazing work being done there.”
She told participants that the idea was to make Intersect so broad-based and to “cross so many lines that you become a huge voice which cannot be ignored.”
“We don’t have to agree about everything to work on the things we do agree on, if people on the left and people on the right come together, governments don’t know whose butt to kiss anymore!” she added.
She said Intersect was taking off in South Africa as people and groups became inspired and began networking.
According to a South African Law Commission, 1.6 million people were raped in that country in 1999. The country’s National Institute for Crime and Rehabilitation of Offenders, Nicro, puts the figure at 900 000 a year, but adds that in 5% of cases gang rape by between three and 30 men is more likely than rape by a single offender.
From studies conducted by Dr Aines Dhai, of the department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Natal, Durban – a province with an AIDS prevalence of nearly 36% – it is estimated that 40% of raped women and children who fail to receive post-exposure prophylactics will become HIV positive.
Of all reported rapes of people under 18 years, 70% are under 12 years old.
South African Department of Justice figures show that of the 54,000 rapes reported in 1999, only 7% resulted in arrests and just 1% in convictions.
The department of Welfare and Population Development estimates that one in three women were beaten by their partners, while in the most populous and developed province, Gauteng, a woman is murdered by her partner every six days.
Fisher is returning to South Africa in August this year to facilitate local groups to perhaps put into action a philosophy that to “create the political will you have to change the social environment in which the politicians are elected.”
She told the workshop that “we can’t afford to take time to fight each other for stuff we don’t agree on, our core focus needs to be on flexibility and creativity.”
AIDS 2002 Conference News produced by Health & Development Networks/Key Correspondent Team