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RIGHTS: A Ghastly Disease Feeds Off a Ghastlier Oppression

Stephen Leahy

TORONTO, Canada, Aug 25 2006 (IPS) - Gender inequality has become the main driver of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, especially in Africa, where 70 percent of those infected are women.

A new powerful international agency for women is needed to turn this situation around and address the growing problem of violence against girls and women, experts and advocates say.

“Rape is extremely common, especially by older men who are infected with HIV who believe that having sex with a virgin will cure them,” said Betty Makoni, executive director of the Girl Child Network, a Zimbabwean non-governmental organisation.

In rural Zimbabwe, a teacher rapes 30 or 40 of his girl students and nothing is done about it, said Makoni at the International AIDS Conference in Toronto, which ended last week. “Where is the world outrage?” she asked.

The Girl Child Network has helped 30,000 girls in 500 centres across Zimbabwe, where an estimated 25 percent of the population aged 15 to 49 is believed to be HIV-positive. At the conference, Makoni was awarded the inaugural Red Ribbon Award by the United Nations Development Programme and UNAIDS.

“There is no right to life here for women and girls. They are treated as semi-slaves,” she said.

Stephen Lewis, the U.N. special envoy for AIDS in Africa, agreed. “We will never subdue the gruesome force of AIDS until the rights of women become paramount in the struggle,” he said at the conference. “It’s a ghastly, deadly business, this oppression of women in so many countries on the planet.”

The United Nations estimates that up to three million women lose their lives to gender-based violence and four million are sold into prostitution each year, while two million suffer genital mutilation. One woman in five is a victim of rape or attempted rape.

Women also make up the vast majority of illiterates in the world due to lack of educational opportunities.

To aggressively tackle these issues, Lewis has appealed to the United Nations to create an international agency to advocate for the rights of women, similar to UNICEF. The proposed agency would have a billion-dollar budget, employ thousands of staff and have widespread operational capacity on the ground where it is needed.

Lewis and his supporters say a U.N. agency for women would be able to support and fund these programmes, extract donations and make sure women are involved in development, trade, culture, peace and security.

Women in poverty face different problems than men, but development policies and programmes are not designed to meet the needs of girls and women, says Joanna Kerr, executive director of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, a Toronto-based international organisation of women’s groups involved in gender equality and human rights.

Women do not earn cash salaries and are not permitted to own land or open bank accounts in many parts of the world, leaving them powerless and poor, Kerr told IPS.

“In many parts of the world, women can’t even negotiate the use of a condom. HIV/AIDS cannot be effectively addressed without getting at the root causes of poverty and inequality,” she said.

HIV/AIDS prevention programmes will be ineffective without programmes to reduce violence against women, especially young women. These issues are not just African but apply to Southeast Asia and Latin America, she says.

“There is no powerful voice for women at the U.N.,” Kerr stated.

For example, young girls are raped every day in refugee camps, and a new U.N. agency for women with strong operational capacity could take action on the ground and ensure their safety, she said. An agency with enough staff could also make sure the needs of girls and women are addressed, such as providing sanitary napkins and ensuring proper toilet facilities are built. “Such obvious things are often not provided,” the activist noted.

The U.N. currently has a small agency for women called UNIFEM – the United Nations Fund for Women – but with a relatively scant 40-million-dollar budget, limited mandate and few in-country staff, it is far from what is needed.

So where is the money going to come from for a U.N. women’s agency? Global foreign aid is more than 100 billion dollars and is expected to reach an estimated 130 billion by 2010, Lewis told the High-Level Panel on U.N. Reform this summer.

“Is more than half the world’s population not entitled to one percent of the total?” he asked.

The panel is charged with making recommendations regarding the reform of the U.N. and could recommend that the U.N. General Assembly create this new agency.

The need for such an agency is “obvious” and there is a mounting clamour for action, says Kerr.

“I see big, empty buses on the streets of Toronto and I wonder about the equitable distribution of resources,” said Makoni last week. “In Zimbabwe, girls who used to walk 20 kilometres to school don’t attend because they don’t have sanitary napkins. They try to use sticks instead.”

But it is far from certain the U.N. will create a strong and effective agency for women, Lewis readily admits. He urged those attending the Toronto conference in his final speech as U.N. envoy to “enter the fray against gender inequality.”

“There is no more honourable and productive calling. There is nothing of greater import in this world. All roads lead from women to social change, and that includes subduing the pandemic,” he concluded.

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