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Laura Brown Sees (RED) in South Africa

May 22, 2023

Last month, Laura Brown—former editor-in-chief of InStyle magazine and Chair of the new (RED) Creative Council—traveled to South Africa to see (RED)’s impact on the ground. Feeling inspired by her trip, Brown decided to do what she does best and write about her eye-opening experience.

“In the United States, we are fortunate to largely view HIV in the rear mirror. But while it has receded in our memories, in Africa, it is far from over. South Africa particularly carries the largest burden of HIV in the world: it accounts for almost 20% of the global population who are living with the virus, and 14% of infections. It’s also the leading cause of death, over heart disease, stroke, violence…name anything else. It’s stunning how common HIV is in the vernacular here – people talk about it as regularly as we in the US talked about Covid… during Covid. Which is why the Global Fund and the South African government have committed nearly $2 billion to the HIV fight, of which $94 million has come from (RED).”

Throughout Brown’s time on the trip, she was struck by the injustices that allow AIDS to thrive. She was particularly moved by a meeting with sex workers who shared their stories with her and the (RED) team. Brown writes, “we sat with around 20 sex workers at a CPC (Center for Positive Care) safe space and asked them about their challenges. An older woman, Samantha, shot her hand up: ‘The police. Even in the daytime, if I am not doing business, they will arrest me. Maybe they keep us for five days. And they’re beating us. I say, “Why are you arresting us? I am not a criminal.” They say, “You are a bitch, you are a sex worker.” Then they take you to a cell. I have been raped two times by officers without a condom. We are not free.’ She added they are routinely, “tear gassed, and pepper sprayed.’”

Brown also described her experience visiting a health center in Pretoria: “There must have been 100 mothers and babies waiting for a checkup, sitting patiently for hours. Each woman held her baby in one arm and health records in another – because there is nothing resembling digitization. The team showed us a presentation of their staff and resources: for a clinic servicing a region of 95,000 people, they had one doctor. One. But seven security guards.”

Brown visited the Gauteng branch of Childline, an organization that provides youths in the community with a variety of useful services and education. She writes about the silver lining end to her journey: “Their ‘My Journey’ program, supported by the Global Fund, works to keep kids in school and find them jobs while reducing HIV transmission and gender violence. And the place looks fun, like a real community. There are a bunch of young men (clinical finding: skinny jeans are universal) receiving sex and gender education but also free haircuts and help setting up bank accounts. There’s a group of women meditating, while others make intricate beaded bracelets. There’s a lot of cackling and mischief and kids coming over after school.” 

Laura’s full South Africa trip recaps are available to read on her Substack: