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Thirty Years On, AIDS Epidemic a Women’s Battle

Portia Crowe

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 9 2011 (IPS) - As world leaders gather in New York for a high-level conference on HIV/AIDS, United Nations agency heads, goodwill ambassadors and activists alike hope they will remember the virus’s most vulnerable victims: women and girls.

Michelle Bachelet, head of UN Women, speaks at the special event "HIV Priorities for Positive Change: In Women's Words". Credit: UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

Michelle Bachelet, head of UN Women, speaks at the special event "HIV Priorities for Positive Change: In Women's Words". Credit: UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

“We want to make sure that the forgotten cause – which is making sure the voice of women can be heard – is top of our agenda during these few days,” said Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS.

The meeting, which runs from Jun. 8-10, is expected to result in a final Declaration to be adopted by member states for the next five years.

“I hope that in the declaration, the women and girls living with HIV/AIDS will be a priority,” Michelle Bachelet, executive director of UN Women and former president of Chile, told IPS.

Throughout the conference, which marks the tenth anniversary of the Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS, UN Women and UNAIDS have been holding side events to discuss the virus’s impacts on women and girls in particular.

“I’m hoping that this whole process will be a wake-up call,” ATHENA Network‘s Ebony Johnson told IPS.

“I think that there is too little language about women, and sadly it’s contentious,” she said at the launch of the global report, “In Women’s Voices”.

Johnson’s organisation is also calling for stronger language in negotiations and in the expected declaration.

“We need some language that says, ‘This is the target, here’s how we are going to do it, here’s the date, and here’s how many people it’s going to impact,'” she said, adding, “We want to see targets that speak to the value of people’s lives.”

Purnima Mane, deputy executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, also criticised the language often surrounding sexual health and reproductive rights.

“We are seeing a lot of reservations,” she told IPS, “and I feel sorry that we are using this opportunity to push back on an area where women need those rights.”

“I’m hoping that the declaration goes beyond what was said 10 years ago and that we can protect reproductive rights, in particular of women,” Mane added.

In recent years, the HIV/AIDS epidemic has come to be widely recognised as a women’s health issue. According to Bachelet, 72 percent of those living with HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa are women, and a large part of these are young women between 15 and 25 years of age.

According to the International Peace Institute, women of that age are eight times more likely than men to be living with HIV.

“Sadly, after 30 years, the epidemic is largely the face of women,” said UNAIDS’s Sidibé.

Frika Chia Iskandar, an Indonesian woman living with HIV, discussed the challenges facing young women infected in the developing world. Although she discovered her infection at the age of eight, she said, “I’m actually one of the lucky women.”

She lived in an urban setting, was able to access treatment, was educated, and learned her basic human rights. “The reality is, not all women know their basic human rights,” she said.

Iskandar’s co-panelists acknowledged the importance of disseminating that kind of knowledge, but they also called for more high-level action.

“What we need is not only awareness, but also political will,” said Bachelet.

Her feelings were echoed by United Nations Goodwill Ambassador and singer Annie Lennox, who is in New York for the high-level meeting.

“If this epidemic was playing out in the developed world as it does in developing countries, the response would be radically different,” she said.

She urged politicians to work towards real solutions. “What we need is action, not rhetoric,” she said.

Other panelists expressed concern about global leaders’ ability to reach a consensus.

“They might not agree, you know. The U.N. is not like that,” Vabah Gayflor, Liberia’s minister of gender and development, told IPS. But, she added, “We want to believe that people mean what they say. So for me, I’m always an optimist.”

And there is some hope for the optimists. On Tuesday, the Security Council adopted an historic resolution that draws “a clear link between HIV and violence against women and girls,” according to Sidibé.

It was adopted after an encouraging speech from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, urging all member states to “link efforts to combat HIV and AIDS with our campaigns against sexual violence and for the rights of women.”

The resolution notes that “the disproportionate burden of HIV and AIDS on women is one of the persistent obstacles and challenges to gender equality and empowerment of women.”

But the Security Council’s move is not enough for Lennox.

“The resolution is only referring to women in the context of becoming mothers,” she said. “We must also address the needs and rights of women themselves at every stage of their life.”

Bachelet agreed. “Women are mothers, but not only mothers,” she said, pointing to their need for proper treatment not only during pregnancy but also throughout their lives.

As the fourth decade of the HIV/AIDS epidemic begins, Bachelet and others hope that empowering women can provide new paths to solutions.

“Women are agents of change,” she said, adding, “We must ensure that gender equality and women’s empowerment is more than a mantra. It must become a guiding principle in the fight against HIV/AIDS.”

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