2 June 2006

Discrimination, Violence, Unequal Power Relations, Lack of Education, among Reasons for Increased Feminization of AIDS, High-Level Panel Told

NEW YORK, 1 June (UN Headquarters) -- Only by addressing the needs and human rights of women and ensuring their full participation in decision-making could the course of the HIV pandemic be changed, the Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Thoraya Obaid, told participants during a panel discussion this morning on ways to end the increased feminization of AIDS.

In introductory remarks, Ms. Obaid, who served as the panel's moderator, said that, 20 years ago, one third of people infected with HIV were women; today it was nearly half.  In the Caribbean and sub-Saharan African regions, more women than men were being infected.  Some 75 per cent of all HIV-positive women lived in sub-Saharan Africa.  In the United States, AIDS was the leading cause of death for African-American women.

Among the reasons for the increased feminization of AIDS, panellists mentioned discrimination and violence against women, as well as unequal power relations.  Often, women and girls had less access to education and less say in sexual relations.  They were marginalized when it came to allocation of funds and had little role to play in designing AIDS policies.  Also, women were often exposed to non-consensual sex.

As Keesha Effs, National Youth Ambassador for Positive Living (Jamaica), put it, "HIV has revealed an endangered species", namely young women, who, "due to predetermined biological make-up, socio-economic disempowerment, culturally-manufactured stigma and discrimination, and extensive exposure to non-consensual sex", had become a high-risk population.

Calling the feminization of AIDS a symptom of gender inequity, Nilcéa Freire, Minister of the Special Secretariat for Policies for Women of Brazil, said the problem was exacerbated by insufficient public policies that guaranteed women's rights, the persistent view of women's health that focused merely on its reproductive aspects, and the lack of access to education and services that promoted women's sexual rights.  The persistence of cultural and religious standards that interfered negatively in the adoption of preventive measures, such as the use of both male and female condoms, had only made things worse.

A former Minister of Health from Norway voiced many speakers' concern that the ABC (Abstention, Being faithful, Condom use) prevention strategy was not working.  The riskiest thing African women could do was to be married or be a young girl, she said.  To ABC should be added a "D" -- Delivering technologies that enabled women to protect themselves, including male and female condoms and microbicides, and delivery of investments in vaccine development. 

She added that, if the face of AIDS had been "male, white and middle class, hitting middle-aged men with briefcases the hardest", major strides in confronting the pandemic would have been made, including the development of a vaccine.  However, because the face of AIDS was increasingly female, poor and marginalized, the fight was an uphill battle.

Other participants drew attention to the role of culture.  Tradition and economics in many places, across the developing world, dictated that young girls marry older, sexually experienced men.  Many societies condoned men's infidelity.  Girls' and women's right to choose when to have sex was not respected in such places as South Africa, for example, where 30 per cent of them said their first intercourse had been forced, and 71 per cent had experienced sex against their will.  Men in leadership positions must act to combat discrimination and violence against women.

Regarding the role of religion, several speakers stressed the importance of Muslim clerics addressing issues, such as the position of women in society.  A priest and a physician said that many cultures colluded in keeping women in a vulnerable place, and that religion played a big part in keeping women in a secondary position.  Every cleric had the responsibility to talk about A and B, as well as C.  No religion had the right to decide the fate of anyone.  Other speakers, however, stressed the importance of faith-based organizations in the struggle against the pandemic.

There was a consensus among participants that ways to stop the increased feminization of AIDS included:  promoting gender equality; increasing prevention efforts for youth; ensuring a stronger link between prevention of infection and promoting reproductive rights for women; ensuring the human rights of women; and strengthening and implementing laws against sexual violence.

One way of addressing the feminization of HIV was through education, many speakers said.  There was a need for education for both women and men that was comprehensive and evidence-informed, and included sexual and reproductive health rights and responsibilities.  Every additional year that a young girl spent in school reduced her risk to infection.  It was stressed that men and boys needed to be partners in discussions on reproductive and sexual health.  Moreover, one speaker said, sex education was not sex promotion.

Women needed control over their own bodies and lives, participants in the discussion said, and mutual consent in sexual relations was key to that.  Men's attitudes and behaviour should be questioned, as those were the single greatest obstacles to the equality of women.  Equipping young people with education and preventive resources, with which to exercise their sexual rights could only help.

The fact that condoms could and did protect against infection must be reaffirmed, speakers said.  Women often lacked the power to negotiate the use of condoms with their sexual partners.  Also, women should be ensured access to male and female condoms, and the cost of female condoms should be lowered.  Packaging should also be changed, as many women were often ashamed to buy condoms.

The other panellists were:  Ulla Tornaes, Minister of Development Cooperation of Denmark; Lillian Mworeko, of the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS (Kenya); Wanda Nowicka, President, Federation for Woman and Family Planning in Poland; and Brian Brink, a representative from the private sector in South Africa.

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