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Gender Matters

It's been said that girl power is Africa's own vaccine against HIV, and that should be true for the whole world," stated Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations, during the organization's first-ever Special Session on HIV/AIDS in late June. But it was the global women's movement that successfully pushed to turn that rhetoric into a set of specific commitments from world leaders to address gender discrimination as the central issue fueling the spread of HIV/ AIDS. As a result, the conference's Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS includes some of the strongest gender empowerment language of any international statement to date. "Until now, getting anyone to perceive this as a gender issue has been an uphill battle," says Madhu Bala Nath, who is an adviser to the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

It's about time. According to recent UNIFEM statistics, 47 percent of all people infected with HIV are women; women account for 60 percent of new HIV infections worldwide; over half of all HIV-positive adults in sub-Saharan Africa are women; and sub-Saharan girls are five times more likely to be infected than boys. "In many societies," says Monica Sharma, an adviser to UNAIDS, which has been tracking the epidemic through the U.N., "women are relatively powerless to negotiate safe sex with a partner," often leading to coerced sex and sexual violence. Both traditional and exploitative practices, such as early marriage, female genital mutilation, incest, forced prostitution, and rape (including marital rape) are contributing factors to the gender dimension of AIDS. Often, unmarried women do not receive HIV/AIDS information because of the widespread belief that a woman should be uninformed about sex until marriage. Then there's the myth in some communities that sex with a virgin will cure HIV, which is also partially responsible for high-infection rates among girls and women.

"The key gain for women is the unqualified championing of their right to control decisions pertaining to their sexuality," says Kathleen Cravero, M.D., deputy executive director of UNAIDS. The declaration calls for the involvement of women's and girl's groups in recognition of the fact that they are strong, positive actors working to reverse the epidemic. It mandates increased access to information, along with greater availability of reproductive technologies like the female condom and microbicides. The special economic needs of women caregivers are acknowledged, and on the issue of mother-to-child transmission, the declaration also states that HIV-positive mothers should receive anti-retroviral treatment (such as AZT), as well as counseling during and after their pregnancy. "We fought hard for language that placed as much of a priority on keeping the mother alive as the baby," says Sharma.

The next stages include getting governments to draft national action plans and establishing a global fund to finance the campaign. According to Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of UNIFEM, if women remain as involved in the decisions of the global fund as they were in negotiations over the declaration's language, "we will have learned from history and not be doomed to repeat it."

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