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We do not all have AIDS (Keynote, NI 346) and although such a slogan sounds like solidarity, I fear it is a smokescreen - to avoid looking at root causes. Not only do we not all have AIDS, but we are not all going to get AIDS mainly because we (in the rich world) are well fed, do not live with chronic infections and our immune systems are functioning.

Prevalences of over 25 per cent in sub-Saharan African countries cannot be compared with prevalences of 0.1 per cent, often less than 0.01 per cent, in rich countries. An epidemic of gigantic proportions is taking hold in Asia, home to an even larger number of poverty-stricken people.  

Click here to read NI 346 on AIDS. Notwithstanding racist stereotypes about sexuality, are we seriously expected to believe that in high-prevalence countries, people have 250 or even 2,500 times more unprotected or unsafe sex?  

The devastating effect of malnutrition, undernutrition and specific nutritional deficiencies on the immune system has been known for decades, as has the effect of co-infections, in particular parasitic infections which affect over a quarter of the world's population, overwhelmingly in developing countries. Co-infections exacerbate each other: for example active TB increases the level of HIV virus in the blood. In populations which are chronically undernourished and chronically infected with other diseases of poverty, susceptibility to HIV is very high, and once people are co-infected, they are very infectious. The result is high transmission rates.

A return to the 'basic needs' approach (food, water, sanitation, basic healthcare) is nothing more than proven public-health wisdom. The World Bank and the Washington Consensus carefully restrict the debate (and the response) to condoms and safer sex in order not to address the structural factors determining poverty and in turn poor health.

Rosamund Russell
Aire, Switzerland

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Hizbullah's other side

Along with discussing the social work of Hizbullah and its fight to drive out Israeli forces from southern Lebanon ('An Honourable Marriage', Letter from Lebanon, NI 346), the other work of Hizbullah needs to be mentioned. Hizbullah also launched over the years thousands of Katusha rockets at northern Israeli towns (within recognized Israeli borders) and other civilian population centres. Indeed, even after the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, these attacks continue.

London, England

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Have faith

How to crush AIDS was excellent, but incomplete. I was surprised and disappointed to find no reference to efforts being made to recommend the most obvious way of avoiding the disease - to be faithful to one partner for life.

Michael Flowers
Leeds, England

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Small difference

Look at the US where half the electorate do not vote, the gerrymander is firmly in place

Abdelwahab El-Affendi's article about lack of democracy in Muslim-dominated countries (Islam, NI 345) omits this lack, as judged by European standards, in some so-called western democracies.

Look at the US where half the electorate do not vote, the gerrymander is firmly in place and the President is appointed by the court; and Britain where there is no constitution and no proportional representation.

The writer concludes by setting up Malaysia and Indonesia as examples to look to for democracy - this in the very same edition as a brilliant poetic exposé of oppression in Malaysia - while he ignores the world's second largest Muslim country of India where there has been no military rule in 50 years.

In the issue we read no comparison of Islam's capture by reactionaries with the obvious corruption and violence of Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity or of political movements or corporations. The result is that Islam is kept in its place as something different from other 'isms', while in practice the differences are slight.

Ricky Ward
Nan, Thailand

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Women in Islam

Click here to read NI 345 on Islam. Amina Wadud's article on women's rights within Islam (NI 345) was a useful addition to the current debate and her references to the rights of women enshrined in the Qur'an help reduce uninformed prejudice. The only problem is that she is very selective in her references. Verse 34 in Surah 4 (Picthall's translation) reads: 'Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret what Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them.'

It is true that other religious texts have similarly misogynous verses, but since Muslims believe the Qur'an to be the divine word of God (Allah), any re-interpretation of verses like these that condone domestic violence seems to be forbidden. Wadud's final quote that the Qur'an is 'the most trustworthy and reliable source of Islam itself' does not inspire much optimism.

Gary Bonar
Melbourne, Australia

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First World debt

Jubilee 2000 concentrated on getting the debts of the poorest Third World countries cancelled, with emphasis on the impossibility of their ever being repaid. Other groups are campaigning against the First World's bullying and massive cheating on trade. But none of these campaigns, so far as I know, has focused on the massive debts owed by the First World to the Third. May I suggest the formation of a 'First World Debt Campaign'.

The first stage would be to establish criteria as to what should properly be included as First World Debt (FWD), and what should rightly be set against it (ie genuine contributions helping the Third World). The criteria should cover items which can probably never be costed, like cultural destruction (for the FWD is not only monetary).

The second stage, tabulation and assessment, would inevitably be complex and controversial, though that does not make the FWD any less real. A few suggestions: theft of land, labour, mineral and other resources; destruction of native industries; genocide and death squads; structural-adjustment policies; protectionism and domestic subsidies, stealing markets; ecological damage; the arms trade.

The third stage would be bringing all these together in readily grasped perspectives and using them to mount a campaign against the present unjust corporation-controlled 'world order'.

A fourth stage could be the setting up of a World Debt Tribunal.

Ken Pinches
Townsville, Australia

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Backyard solution

Reem Haddad's article 'The Ring of Security' (Letter from Lebanon, NI 345) caught my attention since I have always been on the lookout for ways to help people in my small town find ways to raise capital. After reading it, I realized that the system she was describing is something that is already being practised in several parts of the Philippines - small groups (of mixed ages and gender) in rural and urban communities pooling together their resources for mutual benefit. This has been going on for as far back as I can remember and in one region the system is called 'Pahulugan' which literally means 'a place where one drops something'. Funny how sometimes one finds the solution to a problem in one's own backyard after having searched high and low for answers.

Chito Mandia
Boac, Philippines

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AIDS and the elderly

As an infected group, older people are largely ignored

'AIDS Orphans' (AIDS, NI 346) gives one example of an orphan looked after by his great-aunt, an older woman living on a small pension with a family of 10 to care for. This is part of a wider picture of changing family relations, placing new burdens on older people who are already struggling to maintain their livelihoods. Older people are not recognized or supported in current policy and interventions on HIV/AIDS and there is little acknowledgement of the important role they play in their families. Although accurate figures are hard to obtain, HelpAge International's research and development work in a number of countries, including Mozambique, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Thailand and Cambodia indicates that already impoverished older people, especially older women, are frequently caring for adult children dying of AIDS and bringing up their orphaned grandchildren. This places often intolerable strains on older people, physically, emotionally and economically.

As an infected group, older people are largely ignored. People over 50 are generally excluded from national and international statistics on the prevalence of HIV/AIDS. Information and education programmes focus on under-49s. Lack of knowledge affects older people's ability to protect themselves and to give information and guidance to children in their care. NI rightly emphasizes how poverty and gender inequalities have influenced the spread of infection and the distribution of treatment, but the effect on families, including the impact on impoverished older people, is an issue that deserves further attention.

Mark Gorman
Director of Policy Development,
HelpAge International,
PO Box 32832,
London N1 9ZN,

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Letter from Lebanon

A taste for commerce
Raymonda was pushed by adversity into setting up her own business.
Reem Haddad found her reaping sweet rewards.

She was six months pregnant with her fifth child and desperate to make ends meet. Her husband, a science teacher at the local village school, simply couldn't keep up with the family's expenses. Their two-bedroom flat was crowded.

That's when Raymonda Habsheh heard of a course that the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) was giving in her small village in the fertile Bekaa valley - 'How to Start Your Own Business'.

She hesitantly signed up and attended the first session. Looking around her, she noticed that, apart from herself, all the other women had submitted work ideas. On the fourth day, instructors insisted that she too submit a business idea. On impulse, Raymonda said: 'A winery!'

Today, almost five years later, Raymonda and her family live in their newly constructed spacious house and are running a successful winery.

Balady, Arabic for 'village-made', has become a household name in the Bekaa and has made its way to many of Beirut's supermarkets. The Habsheh family eagerly took me around their small winery located in an old stone house. Raymonda's husband, Diabes, opened one of the barrels, dipped in a glass and offered it to me.

'The maturing process hasn't finished yet,' he said. 'It will be by next year though.'

When Raymonda had initially told Diabes of her business idea, he was shocked. Neither of them knew anything about making wine.

'We made our own household wine like all other villagers here,' said Raymonda. 'It simply involved crushing grapes by stepping on them, pouring it in gallon jars until it produced bubbles, then we closed it shut. Five months later we would open it not knowing if it contained vinegar or wine.'

Illustration: Sarah John There was only one thing to do: resort to their cousin who is a priest. Lebanese priests and monks are well known for making wine. From his monastery in north Lebanon, Father Bernard agreed to share his secrets.

As Raymonda attended the course and learned the details of  finding a market, analyzing its needs, setting up balance sheets and running a small business, Diabes threw himself into  learning the art of making wine. Through UNIFEM, the couple were introduced to micro-creditors and granted a loan of $5,000 from a local association.

Praying fervently, Diabes and Raymonda gathered their three teenage sons, and began pressing grapes, collecting the juices and storing barrels.

When it was tasting time, Raymonda was given the honours - a tradition upheld to this day. But only one person could judge the success of the wine. And so Father Bernard was summoned.

'He tasted it and said: "This isn't wine yet but you're on the right track",' remembers Diabes.

A year later the wine had matured and the priest was again consulted. 'He said: "Hey, it's better than my wine,"' recalls Diabes, laughing.

Knowing they were on to something, the couple bought glass bottles and had labels printed. It took two years to find the right kind of cork - again thanks to Father Bernard's guidance.

The family placed their wine in local shops and waited anxiously for a response. Before long, store owners were calling in for more supplies. But a problem cropped up. The couple were too shy to collect their money.

'It was getting ridiculous and we were losing money, so we finally got someone to distribute our product and he takes a certain percentage,' says Diabes.

The first year, the family raked in a gross profit of $7,000. This past season they made $13,000.

Listening to their story, Randa Husseini, the UNIFEM project's co-ordinator smiled proudly. Raymonda was definitely one of their success stories.

UNIFEM had started the project in 1996 to combat the ever-increasing poverty in the Bekaa. Over 70,000 Lebanese had fled from the Gulf War five years earlier and unemployment was high. Unfortunately, men were given priority for the available jobs.

'Women are not seen as main income earners,' said Husseini. 'Yet women have a higher tendency than men to spend any earned income on their families.'

By the time the project ended in October 2001, 3,000 women had participated in the courses, including 700 who went on to start their own businesses.

For Diabes and Raymonda, their next challenge is to convince one of their teenage sons to take over their business. None has so far accepted.

So the couple are now considering their four-year-old daughter, Cindy. She doesn't know it yet, but there are big plans ahead for her. 'She is allowed to sip the wine and loves it,' declares Diabes. 'She's a natural for the job.'

Reem Haddad works for the Daily Star in Beirut.
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New Internationalist issue 348 magazine cover This article is from the August 2002 issue of New Internationalist.
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