Lessons to learn about Aids and the Invisible Woman

Click to follow
The Independent Online
That which we fear, we make invisible. When Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man, his landmark book on racism, in the early Fifties, it was the colour of his skin that made him unseeable in his world. Now homelessness makes the kids sleeping in doorways invisible. Released prisoners or people coming out of the armed forces are given no preparation for reintegration. We expect them to disappear back into the community. But for a truly contemporary update on Invisible Man, change the gender and add a virus.

That point has been made to me several times over the past couple of years by an impassioned young woman named Paula Harrowing, the co-founder, with Emma Colyer, of Body&Soul, a London-based support group for HIV-positive women and children. Young women account for the fastest rising group of new HIV infections, which means there is a corresponding rise in infections in new-born babies. But you'd never know this from the media or the medical research fraternity. As a group, women and children are getting little specialised help. Paula tells me only 7 per cent of new trials and treatments in the UK are geared towards women.

Women also tend to be diagnosed later. Even if she is feeling run-down or suffering from constant thrush, it simply doesn't occur to a heterosexual woman to be tested regularly for HIV. She is likely to learn her status only when she becomes pregnant. So, even in the Aids crisis, women are, as Paula points out, "second-class citizens". And the discrepancy is, she feels, due to our hoariest taboo - sex. It's a grim, lethal scenario: 13 million women infected with HIV by the year 2000, with four million already dead, according to the World Health Organisation.

For me, women such as Harrowing and Colyer are the heroines of our society. It's an inevitable paradox that they remain unheralded for their work. Young and unemployed with, until recently, no place to call their own, they are just doing what comes naturally to women everywhere - networking, caring and raising consciousness above and beyond concerns for their own welfare. This is their way of understanding and appropriating reality, which is something women do so brilliantly well. Body&Soul currently sees around 240 HIV+ women aged between 13 and 61, from all walks of life. They fight the stigma and isolation of their diagnosis in an extraordinary exercise of mutual support.

At the opening of Body&Soul's new premises on Great Ormond Street, it was impossible not to feel the bittersweet mix of strength and vulnerability, openness and intimacy. Most of the women have children and many of them are African. Some hospitals will ask to see passports to check eligibility for treatment. That is an outrage.

To be poor is also to be invisible. I am convinced that poverty is the real disaster staring us in the face. Over the last two years, I've made several journeys across America's "black belt", which stretches through rural areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. This is a true crossing of the great divide, between the America we know and shockingly poor black communities in the South.

My guide has been Jacob Holdt, a photographer who has made it his life's work to document these communities, to go where people sleep and see if they are safe. For the past 20 years, he has roamed the black belt gathering stories of the poor and the marginalised. With his straw-like hair and waist-length beard, he looks like a wild man, a vagabond, but he has visited over 270 American campuses, showing his photos and conducting workshops on racism, showing how it cuts rural black communities off from economic lifelines.

Jacob has taken me into areas crushed flat by the weight of structured racism. It is a soul-destroying sight. But at the same time, the example he sets is inspiring. In a society which often views gentleness as ridiculous or insincere, he has proved to me that there is nothing as powerful as gentleness, or as persuasive as respect and kindness. Jacob reminds me that compassion and respect have to be the guiding lights of any project that aims to address poverty. We have to listen when the poor tell us what tools and skills they need to escape poverty and to keep their communities and families together. So, I was cheered by an announcement this week that private anti-poverty groups have drawn up a plan that will distribute $21.6 billion (pounds 13.37 billion) to nearly 100 million poor people over the next 80 years in the form of small loans to be used to encourage entrepreneurial "micro-enterprises" - farming, trading, activities that foster economic independence.

I'm a firm believer in such small-scale economic initiatives. If anyone was to ask me what I've been most proud of in 20 years of running The Body Shop, I'd point to the setting up of our soap factory in Easterhouse, Glasgow. The easy option would have been some safe industrial park, because Easterhouse was considered one of the worst estates in Western Europe. Today, Soapworks employs more than 130 people making some 30 million bars of soap, and not only is it independently managed, but profits get allocated back to the community. Soapworks is a micro-enterprise that has succeeded in regenerating its surroundings. And its success makes me even more committed to the campaign for community- based businesses.

ONCE upon a time, not so long ago, the fashion and beauty businesses tried to make flesh invisible, but the gut reaction to Full Voice in last Sunday's paper suggests women want an end to flesh-mortifying fashion fantasies. The recent outbreak of Dior-rhoea aside, we truly are ready for a new look and a new attitude. Time to reflect on the blessings of the flesh and the sins of the spirit?