Pioneer tries to turn Aids tide

March 31, 2006

Scarlett Epstein thinks her controversial research on local mores can help ward off Papua New Guinea's greatest threat. Anne Sebba meets her.

In the hallway of Scarlett Epstein's Brighton flat, there is a splayed panther-skin rug complete with head and snarling jaw that dates from her time in South Indian villages in 1954. "I shot him," she says proudly, aware that such an act attracts the wrath of conservationists.

But, as she explains, the villagers themselves urged her to shoot the beast: such animals were dangerous predators notorious for killing their sheep and goats, their livelihood. "You have to understand the local conditions," she insists. It is the leitmotiv that has guided her work.

The 83-year-old is visiting professor at the Divine Word University, a Roman Catholic institution in Papua New Guinea, where she works to reduce the HIV infection rate. An HIV/Aids pandemic threatens the country, and traditional non-governmental organisations seem powerless to ward it off. Epstein has spent the past three months in Papua New Guinea training educators at the university and is preparing to return next month to set up a research project once she has raised the funds.

Epstein was born Gertrude Gruenwald in 1922 into a poor Viennese Jewish family. She was thrown out of school at the age of 14 "for being Jewish".

"It felt as if I was being catapulted into adulthood," she says. "But from then on I recognised something about myself - I respond to challenges."

The challenge she faced from 1938 was how to obtain visas so that her family could leave Nazi-occupied Vienna. She dressed up as an Aryan girl and bluffed her way into the Yugoslav Embassy, persuading the former ambassador to help her in her venture. Months later, she got the necessary permission, and began the long and tortuous journey to England via Yugoslavia, Albania and Germany.

Epstein decided after helping her parents flee Nazi Austria for England that she needed a new name, one that reflected her determination to work her way up in the world.

"I had just been to see Gone with the Wind with a girlfriend and I identified with Scarlett O'Hara and the way she fought. I, too, wanted to get somewhere and Trude was not the right name for that. Calling myself Scarlett completed my new identity. It gave me strength."

She resumed her studies only after the Second World War. By then she was too old to become a surgeon - her dream - but she worked by day as a seamstress sewing ladies' underwear and attended night school to fill the gaps in her education.

After winning a scholarship to Ruskin College, Oxford, where she completed a two-year diploma in one year, she embarked on a three-year BSc in economics at Manchester University, aged 28. Days before her final exams, however, she was severely burnt in an accident when a fire tipped over and set her clothes alight. Unable to write, bandaged like a mummy and in excruciating pain, she was given special permission to sit the exam from her hospital bed, dictating the answers.

"This was the turning point at which I decided to become an academic," she recalls. Max Gluckman, the charismatic anthropology professor, invigilated her exam in hospital and offered her a postgraduate scholarship in anthropology.

Shortly after getting married, Epstein and her husband, Bill, a social anthropologist, took up posts at the Australian National University in Canberra. While in the post, she studied and lived with the Papua New Guinea local tribe, the Tolai, and learnt to speak their language.

She returned to England as a senior lecturer at Salford College of Advanced Technology in 1962 and, in 1972, both she and her husband were offered professorships at Sussex University. She spent 12 years as a research professor at the Institute of Development Studies and became a pioneer in her field, developing a new and controversial research method based on a culturally adapted social market research system.

She has used this approach to investigate the impact of different belief systems and cultural norms on present-day sexual practices in Papua New Guinea. "As far as I have been able to establish, such a systematic approach to stemming the Aids tide has not yet been tried anywhere in the world," she says.

But academics are often contemptuous of her methods. This is partly because she recognises that traditional academic research takes too long and is usually bound within one discipline. Over the years, Epstein has been employed as a consultant for myriad aid programmes, government and non-governmental organisations including the World Bank, and she knows that planners need results in months rather than years.

Another reason for the criticism is the way she uses aspects of commercial market research, which can draw on different disciplines such as economics, anthropology and psychology, to get accurate information from the local population. She feels this is vital in framing a policy that will work in the fight against HIV/Aids in a community where people believe that someone dies not from Aids but from sorcery or witchcraft.

"If they believe that the illness is a result of a spell, against which they cannot protect themselves, what is the point of suggesting they use a condom? You need to understand that before you can make a carefully constructed answer that will persuade them to act differently," she explains. Another difficulty is that promiscuity is a cultural norm in Papua New Guinea, a hangover from a time when infant mortality was high.

One of Epstein's weapons in the battle against HIV/Aids is a monthly column called "Scarlett's Letter" in The National , a Papua New Guinean English-language newspaper. In a recent column, she urged the introduction of a national Brown Ribbon Day to protest about violence against women. She also pointed out that some men in Port Moresby, the Papua New Guinean capital, regard HIV/Aids as primarily a women's problem because an awareness-raising poster campaign pictured women and children only.

"The men have got to be put in the picture, and not just literally," she says.

Epstein has been helped considerably in her mission by the attitudes of senior staff at the Divine Word University. She is sensitive to orthodox Catholic teaching, which forbids the use of condoms, in a country that has a significant Catholic population. But she is full of praise for a Franciscan priest at the university who maintains, "God wants you to survive and, if that means using condoms, people must learn how to survive."

In her eighties, Epstein still burns with energy and ambition, making daily visits to the gym when in England. She is involved in making a documentary called Back to the Village , whose message is that you cannot impose top-down solutions on a community from the heights of the academic establishment.

"You must try to see the world through the eyes of the people you are trying to help and appreciate their aspirations," she insists. "Many academics have failed to do that."

She says what motivates her is not religious faith - "I never believed in God" - but a deep-seated desire to help the poor and disadvantaged "because I can never forget that I too was poor and disadvantaged". Technically speaking, Epstein is not a Holocaust "survivor" - a term applied to those who survived the Nazi camps. However, since arriving in England, she has survived a broken wartime marriage, several miscarriages (she now has two daughters and four grandchildren), breast cancer and cervical cancer, which was diagnosed in 1991. The surgeon gave her a one in three chance of survival, and it was then that she decided to write Swimming Upstream , her autobiography, published last year.

"I wanted to write this book to give other women in my situation courage. I wanted to show girls like the ones I machined with that they did not have to spend the rest of their lives doing that. You can get out."

Swimming Upstream is published by Vallentine Mitchell, £17.50. Special offer for Times Higher readers £14.00, with postage and packing free in the UK. Call 020 8952 9526, quoting THES06.

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