Why Michelle Obama's Africa Trip Matters
For young women emerging from apartheid, a highly successful woman is an inspiration.
Some of the women in South Africa whom I communicated with also said it shouldn't be underestimated that Michelle Obama is a strong female role model visiting a country still ensnarled in a patriarchal culture. South Africa's levels of gender violence and rape are among the highest in the world, and 45 percent of female-headed households here live below the poverty line. This is a country where, despite the fact that women in Parliament have achieved a level of parity enjoyed by only three other countries, in the private sector, there are only 15 women CEOs at companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, 20 women chairpersons and only 16 percent women in senior management positions.
And that is surely part of the reason the crowd applauded when Mrs. Obama said, "You can be the generation to ensure that women are no longer second-class citizens, that girls take their rightful places in our schools. You can be the generation that stands up and says that violence against women in any form, in any place, including the home -- especially the home -- that isn't just a women's rights violation. It's a human rights violation. And it has no place in any society."
To date, no one has been able to affect the daunting effect of HIV/AIDS on young women and girls. They are the fasting-growing cohort of new infections, although the rates of new infections appear to have stabilized. Still, with some 5.6 million infections, South Africa has the highest rates of HIV infection in the world. It is not likely that Michelle Obama will succeed where countless others have failed in delivering an effective message of "safe sex."
But she addressed the issue head on, drawing even more rousing applause when she told the young women, "You can be the generation that ends HIV/AIDs in our time -- the generation that fights not just the disease but the stigma of the disease, the generation that teaches the world that HIV is fully preventable and treatable, and should never be a source of shame."
Some critics of U.S. policy argue we should be doing more. But Michelle Obama's exposure to this area just may give her the kind of firsthand information that will inform in a unique way America's commitment to helping combat the most challenging epidemic facing the country -- and much of the continent, including Botswana, her next stop.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a Johannesburg-based journalist who has lived in South Africa since 1997.