annie-lennox_cover

annie-lennox_coverquoteInterview by Maranda Pleasant

m2m.org
annielennoxsing.com

Maranda Pleasant: I want to start with an emotional question. Yesterday you had us all crying in the audience. You said, “It’s not us and them, it’s us together. If one woman is suffering, then we are all suffering, and we need to put a voice to that.” What is it that makes this issue so personal and so emotional for you?

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Annie Lennox: I identify with other women because of my gender, and I identify with other women if they are mothers because I’m a mother, too. It’s very simple. It’s nothing complicated, it’s not rocket science. It’s about empathy. It’s about understanding that what happens with one person is potentially what happens to you, and seeing yourself in someone else’s shoes. Fundamentally, we are all in the same place: we’re born, we live, and we’re going to die. In between, we’ll have joy and we’ll have sadness. I stand on the shoulders of giants that have gone before me, in terms of affording people like myself, women, the access to democracy, the vote, medical treatment, education, everything that I’ve been given. It’s all been earned. Therefore I feel it’s incumbent on me personally to just contribute something, to add to a collective voice that needs to be here right now, to build it up to a tipping point, to make the world aware that women’s rights still have to be addressed and that the word ‘feminism’ has been devalued and needs to be reclaimed.

MP: What is it that makes you feel personally vulnerable around this issue?

AL: My first understanding of HIV and AIDS was like everybody else from my generation. In the mid-‘80s, we heard about this, and it was terrifying, because we knew nothing about how to respond to it appropriately, and we didn’t really understand about how the virus is passed. There was a lot of misconception about that. We also thought, this is probably something that is effecting just people in the gay population, intravenous drug users, and sex workers. Otherwise, oh, it’s got nothing to do with us. It was put into a bubble like that.

In sub-Saharan Africa, it really does affect a majority of women and therefore their children, because with women come children, and you have two generations that are directly impacted. Once I understood that, my paradigm shifted. There’s so much stigma around HIV/AIDS. It’s a challenging issue, and the people that already have been tested and know their status find it very, very hard to disclose their status, to live with that virus, and to even seek out the kind of information they need. This experience of going to South Africa a decade ago really woke me up to the scale of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa, how it was affecting women and their children. I haven’t been able to walk away from it.

I have a campaign called the Sing Campaign. It’s at annielennoxsing.com, and it’s basically just me and a couple of other people that help to facilitate my transport here and there and make sure my website’s up to date. It’s really just a one-woman show. But what I try to do, if people are interested, if I’ve raised their interest, and in fact if I am able to raise funds, then I will direct them to good governance, good practice organizations that really are doing great work in that specific field. mothers2mothers—founded by my husband, Dr. Mitch Besser—it’s organizations like that that I think are absolutely life-saving and transformative.

Photo by Matthew Willman

Photo by Matthew Willman

MP: [to Dr. Mitch Besser] You’ve really given your life, and I heard the story about how you started this. What is it  that keeps you waking up day after day to really make a difference in thousands of women’s lives?

Dr. Mitch Besser: First, coming from the United States and from such a wealth of opportunity, you need to feel compelled to give something back. I’ve never been tested the way I see so many of the mothers for whom I provide care get tested every day—to find food, to find shelter, to ensure their children are safe. I grew up in a middle class household with parents, went to good schools, and never feared for anything, never wanted for anything that was really important. For all of us living in this world, all of us who have the resources, for us to not dedicate ourselves to giving something back, is to leave the world a lesser place.

I chose a career in obstetrics and gynecology because there’s something about honoring women, honoring the birth process. We all come from women, and there’s something extraordinary about the mothers who raised us. To try to help people have babies in a healthy way and to celebrate the process of delivering a child which will be healthy is, I think, almost the best part of healthcare. And then to find, through HIV, that women are experiencing all the horrors of not knowing if their child is going to survive, not knowing if they’re going to survive—in a sense, it undoes everything that women’s care should be about.

In that spirit, it was very easy for me to dedicate myself to the care of mothers, help them have healthy babies, help them be healthy, help them in a place where they don’t have opportunities. Success breeds the excitement to continue going. It’s harder to get out of bed when you’ve failed. When things are starting to work, you get up at five in the morning thinking, what are we going to do today? You stay up until one in the morning getting it done, and then you start the next day with the same energy, because it’s working! It’s much harder when no one’s responding and then you really have to drag yourself up. But I think part of what we do is recover from failure.

MP: You have a 96% success rate, and it’s just about resources, right?

MB: In the States, the HIV transmission from mother to child is almost completely preventable—the only mothers who really do transmit it are the ones who don’t come in for care. If a mother in the United States or in Europe or in the UK comes to care and gets her medicines, she will have an HIV negative baby. Most people don’t know that.

The flip side is, if you do nothing, if a mother doesn’t come for care, if she breastfeeds her baby, the chances of the baby getting HIV are about 40%. So it’s about the difference between 40% and zero. This is almost totally preventable. But it requires mothers coming for care and getting the medicines they need, and getting the education and support they need.

Just having medicine isn’t equivalent to medical care. You need the health systems, you need to create the social framework so that people feel safe. We’re now in an age where we are, in South Africa, preventing 98% of the transmissions. The transmission rate in South Africa is down to 2%. So what we’re talking about is really last mile. The big countries: Nigeria, the Congo—how do we get services to them? We’ve demonstrated that we can do this in places in Africa—Botswana, Namibia—very successfully.

We need money to scale up the services that bring medicine to mothers. The United States government’s doing that. There’s a global fund that’s providing money. mothers2mothers provides for mothers who come in who don’t have education, who don’t have support. mothers2mothers employs mothers with HIV, mothers who were patients recently in the very same facilities. We take those mothers who were patients who’ve had their babies, we bring them back, we train them, we pay them, to be health care professionals.

MP: Women empowering other women.

MB: Women empowering other women. Those women work next to doctors and nurses, and also often know more than the doctors and nurses because we train them. They become experts in the same clinics where they were patients, and they become experts to the same doctors and nurses who provided them with care, and now they’re counseling women, educating them—how to take your medicine, how to take care of your baby, how to take care of yourself, why it’s important to come back. All of that becomes transferred to this next generation of patients. They get the psycho-social support. They become part of a community. Because the worst thing someone gets is isolated. Isolation is the darkest part of any condition. You can live with almost any condition if you’re living within a community of people who can share a common understanding. We create these communities from women who share common conditions, and those mothers carry each other through. In the end, there is an empowerment that comes from this dignity that they feel. There’s an opportunity to live a fulfilling life, to live positively. Medicine comes with hope: the hope of having a healthy child, the hope of being able to raise your family.

MP: How do you both keep your center?

AL: That is one of my challenges. Right now I’m actually having to face that. The contrast of the world that we live in and the world that is here in Aspen and the world inhabited by women who have no resources, little or no, very few resources—huge disparity. At times I have to really dig deep in myself to come to a place of balance. As Mitch just pointed out, it’s about the mothers. I live with him, so I see how much further he goes. He’s very inspirational to me.
You have a bigger view, of something bigger than you, and you have to view that and take that in mind. At times you feel like despair rises up over hope, then other times you feel hopeful again.

MP: Does this break your heart every day that you work with it?

AL: No. No, not at all. It doesn’t break your heart every day. If you come face to face with some really challenging situations and tragic circumstances—you are going in there with a purpose. You are not going in there as a tourist. You’re not going there just to merely observe. You have a purpose, and your purpose is to tell that story, to share that story for the bigger benefit of millions of other people. Your purpose is to create that bridge so you can give that story the dignity and the focus that it deserves, and you can become a part of the amplification that needs to be there.

People show you tremendous strength and courage and bravery. As Mitch has said, that dignity that comes from people living in the most appalling circumstances, they’re your teachers. You learn from those people. There’s nothing more humbling than going to witness these things for yourself. It’s changed my life completely.

MP: Mitch, can you tell me how you maintain your center?

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MB: I live in a world of possibility and opportunity. You look for the light. There’s darkness everywhere but you look for that spot of light and you work your way towards it, and you do what it takes to get there. Because there’s always darkness around, and if you focus on the darkness, you don’t know where to go. But if you direct yourself at the light—there it is! It’s right there.


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