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CELEBRATE! profile: Erin Barnett ‘09

An HIV-positive Namibian woman "just waiting for death to come" found strength to speak for all AIDS victims in the African nation, and she uses her voice today to battle the disease's stigma. A new film by communications major Erin Barnett '09, which tells the activist's story, is the latest in a series of E-net profiles to spotlight undergraduate research during CELEBRATE! 2009.

“It was humbling to be in Namibia with Anita," said Erin Barnett '09. "As one of her friends stated, she is one of Namibia's best assets.”

The documentary, “My Name is Anita,” introduces viewers to Anita Isaacs, a former Periclean-in-Residence at Elon. The film was screened three times this month – first at Elon University on April 14, then at the National Council of Undergraduate Research at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, and then on April 28 at the Student Undergraduate Research Forum.

Isaacs is regional director of Lironga Eparu, which translates to “learn to survive.” Lironga Eparu assists Namibians who have been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS, and it promotes education and prevention through a variety of programs.

Isaacs is an advocate for women who are affected by HIV in Namibia, where women have struggled to gain equal status with men. “It was humbling to be in Namibia with Anita. As one of her friends stated, she is one of Namibia's best assets,” Barnett said. “At the same time, she was very grounded and inviting.”

The film follows Isaacs life and trials, unveiling her ill-fated yet empowering experiences with AIDS, which she contracted from her husband. It starts with Isaac's involvement in the Namibian War for Independence and then follows her path towards taking the national stage in AIDS activism.

Throughout the documentary, Isaacs talks about her personal battle with gender inequality. She speaks out about her verbally abusive husband and her regrettable persistent denial of the virus due to well-ingrained social stigma.

“Having HIV/AIDS was basically seen as a death sentence,” Barnett said of her time working on the film.

Isaacs finally acknowledged her HIV/AIDS infection in 2000, four years after she was first diagnosed. Since then, she has started a support group for HIV/AIDS infected individuals in Oshana, which lead to the popping up of multiple others in the region. To her merit, hundreds of people have learnt to carry on with their lives.

Barnett, a sociology minor, expressed interest in international social issues early on in her studies at Elon. After talking to Thomas Arcaro, a sociology professor and director of the 2006 Periclean Scholars who had focused on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Namibia, her interest in the crisis grew.

“We connected with … a woman who worked with Anita when she came out,” Arcaro said of how he first learned of Isaacs. “I’ve known her for a long time now. She is a very courageous person.”

Elon’s relationship with Isaacs dates to 2003. She has visited the university twice and has done public speaking for the community.

Barnett also possesses a particular interest in gender issues. A self-described “tom boy” growing up, her parents encouragement played a part in her discovery that the AIDS epidemic is partly a women's crisis.

She found that many sub-Saharan African cultural traditions and values highly contribute in the spread of the virus among women, including their lack of a role in sexual decision making.

Barnett said she plans to move to Washington, D.C., after graduation to work in nonfiction television and documentary production.

To watch the trailer for “My Name is Anita,” click on the link to the right under the E-Cast section.

- Written by Jillian Weiss ‘12

Eric Townsend,
4/29/2009 10:15 AM