African grandmothers are saving their communities from the worst ravages of the HIV and AIDS pandemic. They have stepped in to care for orphaned grandchildren, putting them through school, supporting them through the loss of their parents to AIDS, and teaching them about HIV prevention and treatment. They tend to the sick, set up support groups, harvest the crops and create income-generating programmes. They are advocates for their families, and are emerging as experts and leaders, increasingly acknowledged by governments and international organizations.

But discrimination and gender inequality are making them pay an unconscionable price. Grandmothers are subjected to violence in their homes and from their family members. Wife inheritance and other harmful customary practices endanger many grandmothers, and expose them to a high risk of HIV infection. Grandmothers face a triple threat of discrimination, based on sex, age, and HIV status, and their access to healthcare is often extremely limited. The death of family members has destroyed their previous economic support systems, while at the same time greatly expanding their responsibilities for the care of orphans and vulnerable children and other members of their communities. As well, property grabbing is a constant threat to grandmothers’ housing security, and to their ability to hold on to the land they need to feed their families.

African grandmothers deserve better—they deserve justice. On September 7th, 2013, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, the Stephen Lewis Foundation hosted a People’s Tribunal to shine a public light on the denial of their human rights, and to issue a call for action. Grandmothers from across sub-Saharan Africa presented their personal testimonies, and leaders of community-based organizations shared their expertise about some of the most pressing human rights challenges grandmothers are facing. In response, the Tribunal’s judges spoke powerfully and with great urgency about the remedies that must now be delivered. The Tribunal concluded with the voices of the courageous African grandmothers, who sent out a clarion call for change: the time has come for their rights to be promoted, protected, and respected.

The Tribunal marks a shift and an important turning point in the Foundation’s work with African grandmothers, and the organizations run by and for them. Much has led to this transformational moment, and it reflects the tremendous strides that have been made by grandmothers and community based organizations on the continent.

The HIV and AIDS pandemic brought utter devastation to sub-Saharan Africa in the 1990s and early 2000s. There were no drugs available anywhere and none on the horizon. People were dying in massive numbers. Young people in their most productive years, those in their 20s, 30s and 40s were dying at an astounding rate. What this meant in the life of communities was an enormous proliferation of grandmother-headed households, households filled with traumatized orphaned children.

This led the Foundation to host the Grandmothers’ Gathering in 2006, immediately preceding the XVI International AIDS Conference in Toronto. The Foundation brought 100 grandmothers and staff from community organizations in sub-Saharan Africa, together with 200 Canadian grandmothers, for three days of dialogue and workshops. At that time, the conversation was entirely absorbed with the ravages that AIDS had wreaked on the grandmothers’ families and communities. It was all about grief, and overcoming grief, fear and stigma, parenting traumatized children, and isolation. It was about the desperate search for resources to support their families, and the huge shift they were trying to make in their lives to become breadwinners and parents again.

Canadian grandmothers responded with breathtaking speed following the Gathering, forming more than 200 groups across the country. Between 2006 and 2013, the Grandmothers’ Movement went on to engage in a host of awareness-raising and fund-raising initiatives, generating more than $19 million dollars. These funds were sent directly to the grassroots organizations run by and for the African grandmothers and the orphans in their care.

In 2010, the Foundation approached one of our flagship partners, Swaziland Positive Living, to co-host an all- African Grandmothers’ Gathering. It became clear at the Manzini meeting in Swaziland that a remarkable transformation was taking place because of the support that had been flowing to the grandmothers and their organizations. The grandmothers who were supported by the Foundation’s partner organizations now had the modicum of resources that allowed them to create some basic, immediate security for their families. With their own burdens lightened, they were starting to grapple with the larger challenges that were hindering their ability to ensure a better future for themselves and their grandchildren. They were also possessed by concern for all of the other grandmothers who were still struggling, beyond the reach of their organizations. In Manzini, the discussion was about the broader changes needed to improve their access to healthcare, to ensure children could stay in school, to prevent violence and land grabbing, and to secure adequate pensions. At the meeting’s conclusion, the African grandmothers articulated a platform of action for systemic change and international support.

A People’s Tribunal seemed the obvious next step for the Foundation. The Tribunal provided a prominent, public forum for the grandmothers and their organizations to make their claims. The grandmothers gave powerful testimony that illuminates the human rights violations they’ve been experiencing. And the judges, in their statements, established that the changes they are demanding are required as a matter of justice, not of benevolence or charity. The grandmothers must no longer be left to struggle alone for the survival of their communities. It is the human rights obligation—of their governments, the international community and donors—to ensure their protection from violence, dispossession and extreme poverty, to provide adequate healthcare, to ensure food and housing security, to guarantee the children’s education, and to empower the grandmothers to take a leading role in the development of policies and programmes to turn the tide of AIDS in Africa.

As the grandmothers themselves concluded in their Call to Action:

“It is time to recognize that grandmothers at the forefront of the HIV and AIDS crisis must have our human rights respected and protected. We will not let the AIDS pandemic defeat us nor destroy our communities, but we cannot prevail alone. Africa cannot survive without us. We call on you to act with urgency and purpose to support our efforts to secure justice.”