Press Releases

    9 March 2004

    Secretary-General, Marking Women’s Day, Hails Heroic Leaders of Fight against HIV/AIDS, Urging Their further Empowerment

    Society’s Inequalities Put Women at Unjust, Unconscionable, Untenable Risk, He Says

    NEW YORK, 8 March (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s remarks on International Women’s Day in New York today, 8 March:

    I am delighted that we have been joined by such distinguished guests today.  A special welcome to Queen Noor, and to Dr. Lee of the World Health Organization (WHO), who joins us by video link from Geneva.

    Let me also take this opportunity to express my sincere gratitude to Angela King, who today marks her last International Women’s Day before retiring, after almost 40 years of service [at the United Nations].  Angela, during your seven years as my Special Adviser on the Advancement of Women, and for many years before that, you have been a true trailblazer on behalf of women inside the United Nations and in the world at large.  It must be a source of great satisfaction for you to see how much has been achieved since the day you began your work with us -- but I know you would also be the first to say that much, much more needs to be done. 

    This year, as you all know, International Women’s Day is devoted to one of the most critical issues of our time.

    We have gathered to draw attention on the devastating toll the global HIV/AIDS epidemic is taking on women, and the critical role women play in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

    At the beginning, many people thought of AIDS as a disease striking mainly at men.  Even a decade ago, statistics indicated that women were less affected.

    But a terrifying pattern has since emerged.  All over the world, women are increasingly bearing the brunt of the epidemic.

    Today, in sub-Saharan Africa, more than half of all adults living with HIV/AIDS are women.  Infection rates in young African women are far higher than in young men.

    In the world as a whole, at least half of those newly infected are women.  Among people younger than 24, girls and young women now make up nearly two thirds of those living with HIV.

    If these rates of infection continue, women will soon become the majority of the global total of people infected.

    As AIDS strikes at the lifeline of society that women represent, a vicious cycle develops.

    Poor women are becoming even less economically secure as a result of AIDS.  They are often deprived of rights to housing, property or inheritance or even adequate health services.

    In rural areas, AIDS has caused the collapse of coping systems that for centuries have helped women to feed their families during times of drought and famine.  This, in turn, leads to family break-ups, displacement and migration, and yet greater risk of HIV infection.

    As AIDS forces girls to drop out of school -- whether they are forced to take care of a sick relative, run the household, or help support the family -- they fall deeper into poverty.  Their own children in turn are less likely to attend school -- and more likely to become infected.

    Thus, society pays, many times over, the deadly price of the impact on women of HIV/AIDS. 

    Why, then, are women more vulnerable to infection -- even though they are usually not the ones with the most sexual partners outside marriage, nor are they more likely than men to be injecting drug users?

    Usually, because society’s inequalities puts them at risk -- unjust, unconscionable and untenable risk.

    There are many factors, including poverty, abuse and violence, lack of information, coercion by older men, and men having several partners.

    That is why many mainstream prevention strategies are untenable, for example those based exclusively on the ABC approach -- “abstain, be faithful, use a condom”.  Where sexual violence is widespread, abstinence or insisting on condom use is not a realistic option for women or girls.

    Nor does marriage always provide the answer.  In many parts of the developing world, the majority of women are married by age 20, and they have higher rates of HIV than their unmarried, sexually active peers -- often because their husbands have several partners and bring the infection home.

    What is needed is real, positive change that will give more power and confidence to women and girls, and transform relations between women and men at all levels of society.

    Change that will strengthen legal protection of women’s property and inheritance rights, and ensure they have full access to prevention options -- including microbicides and female condoms.

    Change that makes men assume their responsibility -- in ensuring an education for their daughters; abstaining from sexual behaviour that puts others at risk; forgoing relations with girls and very young women; and understanding that when it comes to violence against women, there are no grounds for tolerance and no tolerable excuses.

    That is why, last month, UNAIDS launched a Global Coalition on Women and AIDS, made up of prominent and committed men and women from all walks of life.

    The Coalition will work for specific steps on the ground, at the local level, to improve the daily lives of women and girls.  And it will build further on the critical role that women already play in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

    At the same time, I hope the recent recommendations of the Task Force on Women, Girls and HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa that I asked Carol Bellamy to lead will serve as inspiration for accelerated action by governments and their partners in the nine most affected countries.

    In most countries and communities I have visited around the world, Nane and I have seen incredible things.  We have seen it is indeed women who have been the most active and effective advocates and activists in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

    Everywhere that the epidemic is taking a severe toll, there are heroic women's groups and cooperatives doing remarkable work on prevention and care.

    Supporting these women, and encouraging others to follow their example, must be our strategy for the future.

    It is among them, among these women, that the real heroes of this war are to be found. It is our job to furnish them with strength, resources and hope. 

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