Governments fail women on HIV/AIDS

The South African woman broke new ground by becoming the first person living with HIV to address such a session. She is perhaps one of the rare moments of achievement in a process that has left civil society disgruntled, clutching to the hopes of recycled promises.

This coming August, those working on HIV/AIDS and related issues will converge in Toronto, Canada for the XVI International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2006). With the opportunity for focusing attention again on the issue, there is a need to emphasise the increasing feminisation of the pandemic, which continues to worsen the situation of women.

“I call on leaders sitting here to protect and promote the human rights of all people in vulnerable groups, particularly women and girls,” said the 28 year-old activist with the Treatment Action Campaign from the village of Thomo in Giyani, Limpopo, one of South Africa’s rural provinces.

However, her appeal does not appear to have made governments any more eager to make critical women’s rights issues central to their goal of halting the pandemic.

In a statement entitled “Women Demand Action and Accountability Now!” released as a response to the negotiations on the Political Declaration for the UNGASS Review, women’s groups from around the world expressed their anger at how governments are still reluctant to commit to targets, mobilise resources and take full responsibility towards meaningful protection and promotion of women’s rights. They felt that governments had reneged on the initial Declaration on HIV/AIDS adopted in 2001 and failed to honour related international and regional human rights agreements.

Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Thoraya Obaid expressed her concern at the increasing prevalence of HIV and AIDS in women compared to men. She noted how the prevalence among women has jumped from 30 percent in 20 years ago, to nearly 50 percent.

Unequal power relations, violence against women and less access to education were among the key reasons cited as fuelling the feminisation of the pandemic. “Only 20 per cent of young women (in the developing world) can correctly identify the ways to prevent HIV infection,” she was quoted as saying.

Issues such as the right to health and the right to live free of sexual coercion and violence, universal access to sexual and reproductive health services and education, and protection of sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls are still not central to public policy and national budgets. Women still have fewer opportunities to become the key decision makers on issues affecting them. As long as the environment is still not conducive to economic, social and political empowerment, it will remain a formidable task to increase women’s capacity to protect themselves from the risk of HIV-infection.

Governments must commit to ensuring women’s control over matters related to their sexuality, and their sexual and reproductive health and need to work hard to guarantee that women have access to comprehensive health care and services. Governments must channel resources towards research into female controlled prevention methods and microbicides.

Women’s groups did not passively wait for the UNGASS+5 Review Meeting, having recognised the opportunities offered for advocating women’s rights. For example, a two-day preparatory meeting was held 6-7 April 2006, in Johannesburg, South Africa. The meeting aimed to create a road map on how African women’s rights can be incorporated into high-level meetings such as Abuja+5, UNGASS+5 and the International AIDS Conference.

The meeting culminated in a critical document entitled the Johannesburg Position on Women’s and Girls’ Rights and HIV/AIDS, an advocacy document that seeks to champion issues of women’s rights in the context of HIV/AIDS.

In other responses to the negotiations on the Political Declaration for the UNGASS Review, women’s groups highlighted the need to strengthen women’s economic independence and conduct campaigns to educate men and boys on the importance of gender equality.

Governments are called on to step up their review and strengthening of legal, policy, administrative and other measures for the prevention and elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls. These include harmful traditional practices, abuse, early and forced marriage, rape, including marital rape and other forms of sexual violence against women. For example, Zimbabwe’s is still deliberating on the Domestic Violence Bill, by-passed by other types of legislation despite its significance. Otherwise, the chasm between promises and real action will become even deeper.

Khensani has faith that a solution is beckoning. She condensed this in a few but powerful words. “I have hope that when time comes for me to take treatment, it will be available. The entire world’s HIV positive people deserve this hope. All the 14 000 more who will be infected by end of today deserve this hope.”

Hopefully, governments were listening.

l Mbonisi Zikhali works with SAfAIDS. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

July 2006
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