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AFRICA: Women Say Regional AIDS Plan Falls Short

Nergui Manalsuren

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 10 2008 (IPS) - Despite the admirable progress made by some African countries in preventing and treating HIV/AIDS since 2000, 14 million Africans have died of AIDS in that time span, and an additional 17 million have been infected, says a new report on HIV/AIDS on the continent.

According to the report “Securing Our Future” launched Monday by the Commission on HIV/AIDS and Governance in Africa, the disease is reducing capacity in all social and economic sectors, undermining and slowing the overall development of the region.

It estimates that by 2020, the nine most severely hit sub-Saharan countries may lose 13-26 percent of their agricultural workers to AIDS – people who are also household heads, mothers and fathers of young children, and have many more roles that contribute to their societies.

The report was released as heads of state, diplomats and civil society groups gathered at U.N. headquarters Tuesday for a two-day high-level meeting to review progress since the General Assembly issued a major declaration on HIV/AIDS in 2001 and to seek renewed commitments for funding and political will to tackle the disease.

The commission on Africa presented an action plan calling for a stronger policy and programmatic response in the areas of prevention, treatment and financing, including a new donor framework for funding.

Speaking at a press conference, Peter Piot, the head of UNAIDS, said the report “addresses not only medical and health aspects”, but also the impact of the disease on governance, answering questions such as: “What should African countries do? What are the impacts on society beyond the health sector? Does it affect the capacity of continuing resilience particularly in Southern Africa in terms of public service that can be provided, and private sector, and what it can do to labour, and et cetera?”

However, some civil society representatives said the commission had fallen short in its mission.

“It is disappointing that the report does not focus on the key current challenges in Africa, such as governments’ failure to meet their Abuja commitment to allocate 15 percent of their budgets to health, the threat to the funding and political commitment to the universal access [to treatment] goal by 2010,” Aditi Sharma of Action Aid, an international NGO, told IPS.

She also cited rising fatalities from tuberculosis, the threat posed by drug-resistant strains of HIV, and “the growing criminalisation of HIV transmission across the region.”

Both Sharma and Olayide Akanni of the Nigerian group Journalists against AIDS said that although the report identified many of the key drivers of HIV/AIDS, it failed to offer concrete solutions on what should be done.

“It’s not that the recommendations are bad, but they are not strong enough and fail to address women’s issues,” Akanni told IPS.

Both NGO representatives were very critical that the report did not pay enough attention to gender equality and violence against women as key aspects of the pandemic.

The commission was largely male-dominated, with women comprising only six of the 19 members.

In light of the fact that 61 percent of those living with HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa are women and girls, Sharma told IPS that “it is very disappointing not to have a strong focus – or even a separate chapter – on women given the feminisation of the pandemic.”

“We are condemning the lack of action and resources to tackle the feminisation of the pandemic by governments and calling on them to put in place specific programmes with dedicated budgets to promote and protect women’s rights – such as the right to health and education, the right to inherit property, the right to land and livelihoods, the right to live free of violence and sexual and reproductive health and rights,” she told IPS.

“I would’ve really expected, as an activist, a strong recommendation on how to improve in terms of political accountability of African governments,” Sharma added.

“We are also calling for greater involvement and leadership of women’s rights advocates, especially women living with HIV, in the design and implementation of national and regional AIDS responses,” she continued.

Speaking on Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressed the critical role of tackling the epidemic as “a prerequisite” for reaching almost all of the Millennium Development Goals set by world leaders in 2000 to significantly reduce hunger, poverty and malnutrition, and promote gender equality, among other things, by 2015.

Progress toward the Millennium Development Goals at their midpoint will be reviewed by the General Assembly this September.

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