Gretchen Wallace (Changent/Fundraiser)

Gretchen WallaceIt is 2004.  You’ll find me sitting in a one room metal shack owned by a woman named Zolecka Ntuli in a township outside of Cape Town.

I’d gone to South Africa on a personal journey to learn more about HIV/AIDS.

I spent a month crisscrossing the country, interviewing social workers, health care workers, NGOs, social entrepreneurs, academics, business leaders and individuals.

I found South Africa one of the most unusual places on earth - where it seems that the greatest wealth meets the most tragic poverty, where racial divisions still run deep, where democracy is relatively new, and where indigenous cultures intersect with modern industry.

One of the biggest issues is the enormous stigma surrounding HIV. There are stories of people being beaten to death because they go public with the status of their disease. Others have committed suicide after learning they are HIV+.  Perhaps even more serious than the stigma are the terrible myths that plague the prevention of this disease.

The most disturbing myth is that having sex with a virgin will cure you. Already the incidence of rape in South Africa is the highest in the world amongst countries not currently at war. Now, many young children, even infants are being raped so that men are certain they have found a virgin.

It was in this context that I met with Zolecka Ntuli in her two-room shack in the Crossroads township outside of Cape Town one afternoon. She unscrewed the single lightbulb she owned from the light fixture in the second room so she could light the room we were sitting in.

We sat with her friend Ana, who was suffering from AIDS, Ana’s little boy and a few other neighbors in her one-room shack. Zolecka told us how she was fed up when a 12-year old neighborhood girl was raped by young boys who thought it was their right because they thought she was their girlfriend.   
This story inspired Zolecka to start a support group in her community. Zolecka was unemployed and had no funds. But she found some loose change to buy some bread and she invited 15 women to come together to start a dialogue about the issue of child rape. It was about six months later when I met her and by that time she had been able to get 60 people together three days a week (45 women, 15 men) to talk about these issues.

She has raised her own money through income generating projects, like beadwork and HIV ribbons. She tries to provide food, which is sometimes the only meal her members get that day. She has put herself through training programs so that she can educate her community. She told us that men think that women carry HIV, so when men get sick, they do not want a woman caring for them. Thus, Zolecka sees the need to start educating and training men as care givers. She also sees the advantage of training men to become educators – somehow other men see information from men as more credible.
Zolecka knows what she is meant to do to help her community. And the startling thing is that when I met her, she was only 25 years old.
What I had discovered in the grassroots societies of those most deeply suffering from the AIDS crisis, was that the women already knew what they needed to do to protect themselves from contracting HIV. But they did not have the economic freedom, sexual rights or personal voice to decide when, where, how and with whom to have sex.

It was a woman’s powerlessness that struck me as the single largest obstacle in the fight to prevent the spread of HIV – that is, until a woman has the courage to step forward to address such issues head-on, like Zolecka Ntuli. I knew right then and there, that I wanted to dedicate my work towards helping changemakers within these marginalized populations of women advance their own ideas for social change. 

Shortly after this trip, I founded Global Grassroots, my non-profit, which is dedicated to providing training, funding and advisory support for grassroots change agents, like Zolecka Ntuli, working to advance social justice for the world’s most vulnerable women and girls.


Related Articles