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The Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign: Building Solidarity in the Fight Against HIV and AIDS in Africa

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I Introduction

"If AIDS is to be defeated, it will happen at the community level, drawing on the astonishing resilience of the grassroots, especially the women who embrace the vulnerable with both courage and love." - Stephen Lewis (1)

The Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign was founded by the Stephen Lewis Foundation (SLF) in March 2006. Since then the movement has grown to include some 200 groups all across Canada. These groups include some men and younger women (called "grandothers"), but are largely composed of older women. Most groups do three things: fundraising, educational outreach and advocacy. This article explores the remarkable progress of this grassroots solidarity movement, with a focus on advocacy work.

Some Facts about HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa

  • Of the 33.2 million people living with HIV worldwide, 22.5 million (68%) live in sub-Saharan Africa. The majority are women. (2)
  • Some 13 million children have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. (3)
  • Older parents or relatives care for 70 to 80% of all those who are ill and dying. Grandmothers bury their own children; then take on the parenting role with their grandchildren and other AIDS orphans. (4)
  • Grandparents - particularly grandmothers - care for 40 to 60% of all orphans in sub-Saharan Africa. (5)
  • Poverty rates in households with older people are up to 29% higher than in households without. Older women who assume responsibility for family members affected by HIV/AIDS are often forced to work long hours and sell their possessions to pay for medicines, health care and funerals. (6)
  • Grandmothers looking after AIDS orphans often lack the resources they need to adequately feed, house and care for orphaned children. They are desperate to find enough money to pay for school fees and school uniforms.

 "The world should get up to fight HIV/AIDS and to try to get medicine for the people who are infected so that the children they are fighting for now, can have at least hope in life for the future." - Karmela, grandmother of 28, Reach Out Mbuya, Uganda (7)

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II About the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign

The SLF created the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign in response to two emergent issues.  First, as the United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, Stephen Lewis was visiting community after community in sub-Saharan Africa where the middle generation (between the ages of 35 - 50) was no longer alive. As a result, grandmothers were raising orphaned children with little or no support.  Second, the SLF started receiving proposals asking for parenting workshops, not for parents, but for grandmothers. Older women were parenting five, ten or even fifteen grief-stricken grandchildren in the midst of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and needed to learn a whole new set of skills in raising their grandchildren.  

The SLF now funds nearly 40 projects in 14 sub-Saharan African countries that directly target and support grandmothers. Grandmother groups in Canada have raised almost $4 million to support grandmother-led projects in Africa that help provide needed resources such as food, housing and school fees, and support for income generation activities, household gardens, community health care and grief counseling.
From the beginning, the SLF understood that the needs of the African people and grassroots projects in Africa had to be the fundamental and driving forces underlying the Foundation's mandate and that of the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign. The model of giving is a collaborative one that takes into account the needs of donors within the larger context of respect and partnership with African projects. The Campaign actively seeks to challenge more traditional models of giving that, in our view, undermine the role of Africans as skilled and accomplished agents of change.
For example, members of the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign do not "adopt" or "sponsor" individuals; nor does the Campaign "twin" grandmothers groups in Canada with grandmothers groups in sub-Saharan Africa.  Rather, the Campaign remains flexible and responsive to the needs of African grandmothers through strategic solidarity-building such as the Grandmothers Gathering hosted by the SLF in advance of the International AIDS Conference in Toronto (August 2006); the SLF-led grandmothers trip to Africa (February 2008); visits by African grandmother advocates to participate in Canadian events (2007/08) and regular communications with stories and photos, such as the monthly Granny Bulletin.
At the centre of this model of giving and solidarity is the notion of social justice rather than charity - a notion that obviously lends itself to the work of advocacy. Grandmothers in Canada organize and act not only because they believe in service and civic duty within their own communities, but also because they see something fundamentally wrong when millions of grandmothers and children, women and men, are living in poverty and dying of a preventable and treatable disease. The Campaign challenges us to recognize our own complicity in supporting political and economic policies that propagate indignity and inhumanity - and to respond by supporting action at the grassroots.

"There was a time when grassroots organizations apologetically explained that they were only around to complement governments' activities.  It is time to acknowledge that these grassroots organizations are creating an impact that no government in the region can do without." - Renowned Zambian AIDS activist Winstone Zulu (8)

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III Advocacy and Solidarity

While advocacy has always been an important function of social movements and nongovernmental organizations, it is not often associated with older women. Indeed, explaining advocacy and helping older women become more comfortable with advocacy activities is an ongoing task. Happily, we have found that once engaged, older women become a committed and passionate force to be reckoned with. Indeed, Stephen Lewis has said to several audiences, "Ignore these grandmothers at your peril!"

The National Advocacy Steering Committee (NASC) defines advocacy as "the deliberate process of influencing those who make policy decisions." (9) At the original gathering in 2006, we made a promise to the African Grandmothers: "to act as their ambassadors, raising the volume on their long-suppressed stories until they are heard, understood and acted upon." We promised "to apply pressure on governments, on religious leaders, and on the international community." (10) Advocacy is how we keep that pledge.  

At the same time as Canadian grandmothers work for change on the home front, our sisters in Africa have bravely taken on the advocacy role in their own countries.

Grandmothers Speaking Out in Africa

All over sub-Saharan Africa, grandmothers, women and their allies are organizing to collectively press their governments and the international community to keep their promises and to guarantee the practice of their human rights. On International Women's Day in March 2008 - the two-year anniversary of the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign - twelve grandmothers from Canada attended an historic march and rally in Manzini, Swaziland. More than 1800 Swazi grandmothers and other women came together as never before, to demand the right to health care, adequate access to food and water, and an end to the gender inequality which has made them, and kept them, most vulnerable to the pandemic.    

There have been many significant gains made at the grassroots. Organizations such as the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa, which involves many grandmother-activists, successfully confronted its government by invoking the constitutional right to health care, in order to ensure that pregnant women had access to medication that prevents the provision of mother-to-child-transmission.

"It means a lot to us to know that Canadian grandmothers understand our situation and stand with us in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and the human rights abuses that many African women face." - Siphiwe Hlope, AIDS activist and grandmother, Swaziland (11)

Older Women Speaking Out in Canada

Soon after the 2006 Gathering in Toronto, a number of women from across Canada formed an advocacy network led by the National Advocacy Steering Committee (NASC). Each NASC member has an alternate, in recognition of the reality that most women at this stage of life are also dealing with life changes and personal commitments such as the caregiving of older family members and grandchildren. NASC communicates with local groups through designated Advocacy Cluster Leaders across the country. In less than two years, NASC and the National Advocacy Network have established a strategic and operational plan, launched an advocacy website and established a platform for action. Activities have included a national petition (which will be presented in Parliament in 2009), organized visits with MPs, an election strategy, media conferences and interviews, the publication of op-eds and articles in several newspapers and magazines, public awareness events and political demonstrations and rallies across the country, including two on Parliament Hill.

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IV Some Early Lessons Learned

How has the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign and the National Advocacy Network been able to grow so quickly, both in terms of numbers and accomplishments?
1. Rally around a charismatic leader. Visionaries and statespersons help social movements take flight. They are public figures that embody hope and trust, and that challenge the conventional role of the possible. [12] Stephen Lewis inspires Canadians of all ages, but particularly a generation of older women, to take action on an issue that resonates strongly with grandmothers.

2.  Build on the wisdom and experience of older women. Some of the women who volunteer in the Grandmothers Campaign are practicing or retired lawyers, journalists, teachers, social workers, nurses, consultants and politicians. Many worked as full-time mothers. All share the wisdom and experience of age, a sense of social justice and a love of children. The National Advocacy Network builds on the individual and collective assets and networking skills of their members. Not surprisingly, personal empowerment and increased social support are predictable outcomes. As has been shown in studies with the Raging Grannies, being a member of a group of like-minded people that engages in social activism is both empowering and good for one's health. (13, 14, 15)

3.  Maintain a clear focus. The situation of grandmothers raising AIDS orphans is intricately linked to other issues including poverty, women and children's rights, violence, social stigma, and global food and pharmaceutical policies. The AIDS pandemic is global in nature. While the Grandmothers Campaign does not ignore these interactions, it has stayed focused on the area of greatest need. This focus has enabled us to build an advocacy constituency on two continents that shares a common mandate: "dignity for the present and hope for the future for grandmothers and AIDS orphans in sub-Saharan Africa". (16) It provides a clear, memorable and persuasive message—the "stickiness" described by Malcolm Gladwell as one of the tipping points that make a difference for social movements. (17)

4.  Identify and talk about your values. Early on, NASC went through a process to identify the core values of the movement and then to widely share and discuss them. They include social justice, a shared purpose that also celebrates diversity, and "ubuntu"—a Swahili expression that speaks to solidarity: "I am because we are; your sorrow and joy are mine."

5. Build partnerships with other civil society organizations. Effective advocacy requires reliable information, research and monitoring of political action, media exposure and public opinion. (18) As a grassroots movement of over 200 loosely affiliated groups with no paid staff, the National Advocacy Network relies heavily on partner organizations working in HIV/AIDS and international development who are skilled at these tasks, as well as the ongoing support of the Stephen Lewis Foundation. Like all partnerships, we work hard at finding mutual benefits. We support their efforts and are extremely grateful for their help in clarifying and communicating the main issues.

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V A Call to Action

In 2006, Canadian and African grandmothers created the Toronto Statement. (19) In September 2007, over 500 grandmothers and "grandothers" marched to Parliament Hill in Ottawa where they presented an updated version in collaboration with visiting grandmothers from Africa. Here is an excerpt from the Ottawa Call to Action. (20)

We Canadian grandmothers stand firm in our commitment to give of ourselves because we have so much to give. We urge our government to take action now — to increase our foreign aid contributions, to give direct assistance to the African grandmothers who are caring for millions of vulnerable children, to provide political leadership and generous financial support to international programs including the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and to increase support for nongovernmental organizations working in international development and HIV/AIDS.  

Together, we urge the United Nations to recognize and support the role of grandmothers as caregivers. We call on the United Nations to work with national governments and nongovernmental agencies to ensure that all families in Africa affected by the HIV and AIDS pandemic have access to scaled up efforts to provide care, treatment and prevention, as well as access to universal education and affordable health and social services.

To do nothing is to turn our backs on a global injustice. Millions of lives and the future generation of Africa are at stake. This is a call to action.

How can you get involved?

  • Join or start a grandmothers/grandothers group.
  • Organize an awareness and fund-raising event in your community or at your workplace, school, or faith centre.
  • Make a donation to the Stephen Lewis Foundation Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign.
  • Download the national petition at and collect signatures.
  • Help the NASC by volunteering to help with research and communications related to advocacy efforts.
  • Support other Canadian nongovernmental organizations working in HIV/AIDS, human rights, international development and poverty reduction (see Resources section).

For more information, please visit or contact Julie ( or Peggy (

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VI References

1. Lewis, S., retrieved at, November, 2008

2. UNAIDS. 2007 AIDS Epidemic Update. Geneva: UNAIDS, December 2007.

3. Based on a range of [10.5 million - 14.6 million], as listed in the UNAIDS 2007 Epidemic Update, p.8.

4. International HIV/AIDS Alliance & HelpAge International. Building Blocks: Supporting older carers. Brighton, UK: International HIV/AIDS Alliance. Updated December 2005, p.3.

5. UNICEF. State of the World's Children 2007: Women and Children: the Double Dividend of Gender Equality. NY: UNICEF, 2006

6. Ibid

7. Stephen Lewis Foundation. Granny Bulletin, 2008

8. Zulu, W. SLF Grassroots newsletter, November 2008

9. National Advocacy Network, retrieved at, November 2008

10. Toronto Statement, retrieved at, 2006

11. Hlope S. National media release, September 2008.

12. Pertschuk M. Leadership Types in Social Movements: Lessons Learned from the Tobacco Control Movement. Washington: Advocacy Institute, 2004.

13. Kaye W. Self-Help Support Groups for Older Women: Re-Building Elder Networks Through Personal Empowerment. New Yor: Taylor and Francis, 1997.

14. Hutchinson S., Wexler B. Is Raging Good for Health?: Older Women's Participation in the Raging Grannies. Health Care for Women International, 28:88-118, 2007.

15. Narushima M. A gaggle of raging grannies: the empowerment of older Canadian women through social activism. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 23, 1: 23-42, 2004.

16. National Advocacy Steering Committee. Strategic Plan, 2007.

17. Gladwell M. The Tipping Point. How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. New York: Little Brown and Company, 2000.

18. Sussman A. The Art of the Possible. A Handbook for Political Activism. Toronto: McLelland and Stewart, 2007.

19. Toronto Statement, retrieved at, 2006

20. Ottawa Call to Action, retrieved at, 2007.