Women empowerment alone is not the solution to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, said MJ Engel ’13, who spent her summer researching the spread of HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe as a part of her Brace Fellow Presentation.
Engel’s presentation, titled “Loans, Lessons, and Leaders: Empowering Men and Women to End HIV/AIDS Epidemic in Zimbabwe,” explained the complex social and economical situation in Zimbabwe and its effect on HIV/AIDS. Engel concluded that empowering both men and women was critical to mitigate the spread of the disease in Zimbabwe.
“Oftentimes, men will feel that any women empowerment campaign is inherently anti-man, and out of these feelings, will oppress women in retaliation…power dynamics that are already in place in the household will make the man take control over his wife’s income,” said Engel.
Engel said that this dual-empowerment begins with fostering open conversation about gender roles with men and encouraging women to get an education or a job to lift their families out of poverty and away from HIV/AIDS-prone regions.
Engel believes that existing micro-loan programs in the country will help individuals with HIV/AIDS find treatment. She said that gender-specific programs such as Padare, a forum on male sexual behavior and relationships with women in the context of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and A Woman for All Seasons, a forum for women about business ideas, are key aspects of empowerment for both genders.
“[These organizations] create a forum for men to question and reject gender stereotypes and privileges…it attracts high-ranking traditional officials, like village chiefs,” said Engel.
One of the biggest micro-finance programs is the Zambuko Trust, which helps HIV-positive individuals secure loans for their family after they pass away. Engel said she supports such solutions because they provide financial security for the deceased’s family.
Engel started her research over the summer when she was working in a biology lab at the University of Wisconsin. Engel reached out to faculty in the African Studies department in addition to the Director of the Gender Studies program at the University of Wisconsin.
Although she was not able to travel to Zimbabwe, Engel’s research consisted of interviews with professors, reading papers and watching videos. At first, Engel said she struggled to find motivation to continue after encountering professors who did not think she should be researching the complex HIV/AIDS epidemic.
“I think the hardest thing was when I e-mailed a couple professors on campus…and there was this one professor who basically [responded], ‘Who do you think you are, taking on this project’…it discouraged me at first,” Engel said.
Engel became interested in the issue of women’s rights in Zimbabwe after reading the book “Nervous Conditions” by Tsitsi Dangarembga in her English 200 class with Flavia Vidal, Instructor in English, who also served as advisor for her Brace Presentation. Engel’s presentation drew in part on the research paper she wrote in the spring of English 200 about education for young women in Zimbabwe.
In addition, the political, cultural and economic that lend to the spread of HIV/AIDS in the country attracted Engel to study Zimbabwe in particular. Zimbabwe has been under the dictatorship of Robert Mugabe for 32 years and has recently been experiencing soaring hyper-inflation, peaking at 11,200,000 percent, said Engel.
In her research, Engel was most surprised by the United Nations’ approach to solving the global HIV/AIDS epidemic, which focuses on the “A-B-C”‘s, Abstinence, Being faithful, and Condoms. She said that this approach is overly simplistic and archaic, as it has not changed since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in 1981.
Engel hopes to continue researching HIV/AIDS in Africa after she graduates Andover. “The project has helped me define what I want to study in college, because I’ve always been interested in social science in addition to physical science,” Engel said.
Diane Moore, Director of the Brace Center and Instructor and Chair of the Philosophy and Religious Studies Department said, “I thought she was articulate and that she handled the questions really well.”
Anne Gardner, Director of Spiritual and Religious Life, who attended the presentation, said, “For me, the most interesting part was the cultural context. It was learning about Zimbabwe and the explosion of HIV/AIDS in Africa, about thinking more broadly about how to tackle this problem.”