A few weeks ago I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart at D.C.’s Arena Stage. The whole production was very moving and the performers and director did Kramer’s work beautiful justice, but this is not a theatrical review. When the Normal Heart first opened in New York in 1985 it was one of the first plays to give voice to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Today it is 27 years later. But what struck me most about the play is not the challenge to have the conversation about HIV/AIDS in our own country (though as Artistic Director of Arena Stage, Molly Smith, reports “1 in 20 adults in D.C. is HIV positive” and in fact the production of the play corresponds with the 19th International AIDS Conference) but rather the lack of conversation in other countries.
It is estimated that 23 million people living in sub-Saharan Africa are infected with the HIV/AIDS virus. The U.N. estimates a total of 1.2 million deaths related to the disease in 2010 alone, to say nothing of the millions of children orphaned by the disease. In 2010, 68% of all people living with HIV resided in sub-Saharan Africa. This same area accounted for 70% of new HIV infection in the same year. In Uganda the rate of infection actually doubled from 1.2 million to 2.4 million between 2004 and 2011. So I wonder: With all the access to information and all the access to methods of prevention how is this possible?
At the end of 2010 it was estimated that 34 million adults worldwide live with HIV/AIDS. Half of these numbers are women. If we take into account that 68% of those infected live in sub-Saharan Africa, the number of women is staggering. The issue is that in societies, like Uganda, women have few rights within the family. These rights include the husband’s ability to take another sexual partner and the husband’s ability to say no to the use of a condom. Though education is an important element in protecting women and girls against HIV infection often times this education runs counter to religious beliefs, with many churches preaching against the use of condoms to their congregants.
These women represent the new voice. When Kramer’s play begins there are 41 infected cases of HIV/AIDS. Today they number is close to 35 million. How long will we let their voices go unheard?