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October 4 , 2004
Humphrey Fellows look at global AIDS pandemic
lailee mendelson is communications coordinator for the office of international affairs
(Editor’s note: This column continues a series by the Office of International Affairs on the international work of Emory faculty and students.)
Rollins School of Public Health Humphrey Fellow Suresh Mohammed is a physician who has served his state of Karnataka, India, in various capacities: as an aide to the governor; as head of the equivalent to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; and as district police officer.
What he saw during his years in the police force, Mohammed said, made him passionate about the issue of domestic violence, and later, about exploring the connection between domestic violence and HIV/AIDS, which afflicts nearly 5 million of his fellow Indian citizens.
Mohammed’s Humphrey Fellow colleague Lineo Vilakazi is from the much smaller southern African nation of Swaziland, where 38.5 percent of its million citizens are infected with HIV. For almost 30 years, Vilakazi has worked with her government on education and health issues related to women and children, who she says often are infected with HIV as a result of sexual abuse.
Mohammed and Vilakazi are two of 13 Humphrey Fellows in residence this year at Rollins, the largest class in the program’s 11-year history at Emory. Established by former President Jimmy Carter in 1979 to honor the late senator and vice president Hubert Humphrey, the State Department-funded program brings accomplished professionals in several fields from around the world to the United States for one year of non-degree study and practical experience. Fifteen universities nationwide are chosen to host Humphrey Fellows based on their excellence in relevant areas; Emory and Tulane University are the only two public-health campuses.
According to Philip Brachman, professor of international health and coordinator of Rollins’ Humphrey program, the State Department increased funding this year with the proviso that participating institutions would emphasize the global AIDS pandemic.
A large majority of this year’s Humphrey class will be doing just that. Mohammed plans to study the interplay between gender, domestic violence and HIV/AIDS. “This is a topic of extreme relevance to my country,” he said. India now has the highest number of HIV infections in the world, and 35 percent of those infected are women, who according to Mohammed, “are most often made victims of the HIV epidemic through no fault of their own.”
“In India,” he said, “violence is a cause for HIV, and HIV is a cause for violence. Women are usually impacted by the disease—not because they engage in risky behaviors, but because they often have no decision-making ability within their matrimonial setup.”
High rates of domestic abuse in India mean that wives often have little or no say about their sexual lives, and therefore little ability to protect themselves against husbands who may bring the disease home. The result for infected women, Mohammed says, is further abuse, both physical and verbal, from husbands, families and the community.
“One of the primary prevention methods for HIV in women is to empower them so they can make decisions that keep them safe,” Mohammed said. He will be consulting with experts at Emory’s Center for AIDS Research and the Center for Injury Control at Rollins to develop sex education and domestic-violence prevention programs.
Vilakazi also will be looking for ways to empower women in her country. “Part of my work for the Swaziland government was to research the country’s rate of abuse and types of abuse,” she said. “We found that abuse is rife, especially sexual abuse against female children. It is also the young females who take the brunt of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.”
While at Rollins, Vilakazi plans to study child counseling, a field she says is still in its infancy in Swaziland. She will be working with independent counselors and experts in the department of infectious diseases, as well as with Jerusalem House, a local organization that provides housing and counseling for HIV-positive women and their children. She also will study ways to empower women economically.
“We want to be able to help our children who have been though traumatic experiences,” she said. “But we must also empower women. You cannot talk about empowering children without empowering women. If we empower the women, they will be able to better protect their children.”