At the turn of the 21st century, AIDS was roaring unchecked across sub- Saharan Africa, leaving a wake of smoldering communities and decimated families as the death toll churned out numbers year after year that defy imagination. Numbers like 36 million dead — primarily between the ages of 20–49. Numbers like 16 million orphans and counting.

These numbers have been cited the world-over when trying to communicate the scope, severity and urgency of AIDS. With treatment now available these numbers have slowed but the pandemic still has a desperate hold on the continent — total structural and communal devastation does not repair itself overnight.

Here’s a different type of statistic: throughout southern Africa it is estimated that between 40–60% of orphans live in grandmother-headed households. It’s easy to miss the significance of this statement, but it holds the key to achieving an AIDS free generation and finally resolving one of the most confounding crises of our age.


At the heart of the global AIDS epidemic, in community after community, are the grandmothers of Africa. They have been operating for years, almost invisibly, as the true first responders to the HIV crisis. The millions of AIDS patients were their adult children. Grandmothers took them in and provided loving care and dignified deaths. Afterwards, they turned to their grieving orphaned grandchildren and began parenting anew. Safe housing, nutritious food and education were top priorities despite having far fewer resources, no support and their own failing health. Grandmothers became the lynch pin of survival for their families and communities — and yet remained entirely invisible in the international response to AIDS.

And so, they found strength in each other. In countries across Africa, grandmothers groups in the thousands have become their own epicenters for momentous change. Community-based organizations run by and for grandmothers help them cope with their grief, generate income, advocate for everything from pensions to land rights, and lead the charge on HIV and AIDS prevention and treatment.

No one saw them coming. No one thought they counted. But these African grandmothers — the unsung heroes of the AIDS epidemic — have found their voices and are becoming an unstoppable force for change.

You can join them!

Become part of the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign! Find out how to start your own Grandmothers’ group in solidarity — to raise awareness, and funds that will go directly into the hands of grassroots groups that are having a powerful impact in the lives of grandmothers and the orphaned children in their care.

Make a donation via TID/ways-to-give/donate-from-the-united-statesES U.S. stephenlewisfoundation.org

Find out more about the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign and how to become a part of it grandmotherscampaign.org.