05/26/2005 01:30 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

"Africa's Time Has Come"

I've been hesitating to blog -- about anything. Except maybe acting...maybe parenting (although there are days I think I know nothing about those subjects either). Frankly, I've felt a little self conscious getting on a soapbox about subjects I feel very strongly about, but on which I'm hardly an expert. But just now, after reading Emira Woods' article about Mandela's message to America that "Africa's time has come,” I felt moved to share some thoughts.

I can’t understand why we, as a country, aren’t doing more to help Africa. Look at the generous outpouring of support for the (much deserving) victims of the recent tsunami in Indonesia. The administration (eventually), the public, and the press were so generous in their support and coverage of this horrific tragedy. The estimated deaths in that disaster were more than 283,000. But what about Africa? AIDS killed 2.3 million people there last year alone! AIDS has killed 10 times more Africans than all of the armed conflicts in Africa combined. HIV has spread to 25 million sub-Saharan Africans. Where's the outpouring of support for these victims from our government, the public and the press?

And now, because of the high cost of antiretrovirals and the lack of AIDS education, many desperate male AIDS victims are buying the widespread myth in Africa that having sex with a virgin will "cure" you of AIDS. As a result, more and more young girls are being raped. Indeed, shocking as it may be, there are reports of toddlers -- even a nine-month-old -- being raped. And because so many men there don’t believe in condoms (or have no access to them), the victims who survive become infected with HIV. In fact, teenage girls with HIV/AIDS in Africa outnumber boys by five times.

Because of the cultural traditions that subordinate women there, they, tragically, have little or no authority in their sexual relationships. Take, for instance, the horrific tradition of "widow cleansing" -- a practice that forces a widow in rural Africa to have sex with her husband's relatives in order to "cleanse her and to break the bond with his spirit." And because condoms are generally not used in this ritual (because wearing a condom could "provoke some other unknown spirit"), many of these widows are being infected.

So, if you are born female in Africa today (especially in rural Africa), HIV/AIDS could very likely be part of your future. I can’t believe our country – this administration -- isn’t doing more for these millions of victims, both by helping to make medications more available and affordable (pharmaceutical companies should stop standing in the way), and by helping to educate this suffering continent.

Like the tsunami victims, these people are desperate for us to open our hearts –- for our generosity and our help. At the very least, wouldn’t it be great if our First Lady, on her next overseas trip to promote the rights of women, went directly to Africa? I for one would love to see her standing up for those little girls, protecting them from the desperation of AIDS-stricken men. I even fantasized she could be handing out condoms, AIDS education pamphlets and medical supplies during her visit, with the international press covering her every move. Now that would be a picture worth a thousand words -- one worth seeing around the globe. Contrary to what the president said last week, pictures can make a difference –- for better or for worse.

In researching ways that I could help, here are some groups that I found particularly useful:
  • CARE
  • DATA
  • Girls Talk! Tanzania
  • AWA Advocacy for Women in Africa