Struggle against HIV/AIDS requires focus on women


Women carry almost all the responsibility for meeting basic needs of the family, yet are systematically denied the resources, information and freedom they need to fulfil this responsibility. According to UNAIDS, 17 million women are living with HIV, and 76 percent of all HIV-positive women live in sub-Saharan Africa.

In Namibia, women constitute 55 percent of the people living with HIV, but female HIV infections are reportedly on the rise in Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America.

According to statistics, the vast majority of the world's poor are women ‑ making up 70 percent of the world’s poorest. Statistics also show that two thirds of the world's illiterate people are female.

Of the millions of school-age children not in school, the majority are girls. And today, HIV/AIDS is rapidly becoming a woman's disease. In several Southern African countries, more than three-quarters of all young people living with HIV are women.

Despite remarkable advances in the search for an HIV cure, there is reported increase in illnesses and mortality due to HIV/AIDS in developing countries, which is exacerbated by lack of food.

Women living with the virus are severely affected by chronic shortage of food, for instance in Namibia, which is experiencing the worst drought in over 30 years. Many people cannot afford more than one meal a day, and one cannot imagine how many women ‑ including those living with HIV ‑ are skipping meals just to ensure that their children have enough to eat.

These women are already suffering the effects of even more severe malnutrition, which inevitably will be their children's fate as well. The impact of this challenge will be with us for many years.

Experts have noted that HIV and nutrition are intimately linked. HIV infection can lead to malnutrition, while poor diet can in turn speed the infection’s progress.

As HIV treatment becomes increasingly available in the poorest parts of the world, critical questions are emerging about how well the drugs work in people if they are short of food.

The reasons for women’s particular vulnerability to HIV, which is mainly transmitted through sexual intercourse and exposure to infected blood, are complex and varied. Sexual assault and other forms of violence against women are among factors that place women at risk of HIV.

Because of the economic factor, many women find themselves wholly dependent on their male partners. That tends to limit their negotiating power in terms of safer sex.

Studies show that when women are supported and empowered, all of society benefits. Their families are healthier, more children go to school, agricultural productivity improves and incomes increase. In short, communities become more resilient. I also believe that empowering women to be key change agents is an essential element in ending hunger and poverty.

Therefore, there is a need to come up with programmes aimed at securing women’s rights as well as to invest more money in AIDS programmes that work for women.

The only way we can empower women is by ensuring that laws ‑ whether statutory, de jure or customary ‑ protect women against violence and uphold their right to own and inherit property.

There is need to invest in strategies to educate the police, the judiciary, social service providers, civil servants and community leaders about laws and their legal responsibilities as well as to develop and fund programmes to improve legal aid services and other forms of support so that women can claim their rights .

There is also a need to review and adapt existing HIV/AIDS strategies to ensure they work for women. There is also need to expand access to the services women need – including education, sexual and reproductive health, antenatal care, prevention of mother-to-child transmission, and antiretroviral therapy.

October 2013
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