AIDS scourge in Africa shows urgent need for new women’s agency: UN envoy

Stephen Lewis

17 March 2006 – Lesotho and Swaziland are “gasping for survival” amidst the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the United Nations special envoy for the disease in Africa said today, repeating his call for setting up an international women’s agency to deal with the discrimination that has allowed the global scourge to ravage the continent.

Briefing reporters in New York on his trip last month to both countries, Stephen Lewis, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, said it was “impossible to traverse the continent of Africa…without an enveloping sense of horror and despair at the carnage amongst women.”

Describing himself as “frantic” over the slow response to the devastation, Mr. Lewis said: “Things are changing on the ground so incrementally – Lesotho and Swaziland are but symbols for the greater whole – that we’re losing millions of young women in Africa. In the process, we’re creating a generation of orphans whose lives are lives of torment.”

Swaziland continues to have the highest prevalence rate in the world at 42.6 per cent. In its recent antenatal survey of pregnant women between the ages of 25 and 29, the prevalence rate was 56.3 per cent, Mr. Lewis said. “That’s the highest prevalence I have ever seen registered in any age group anywhere. The mind fractures at the thought of it.”

Mr. Lewis said that such a “terrifying” HIV prevalence rate among this age group of pregnant women was a stark reminder of “the meaning of gender inequality,” adding that these and similar grim statistics gave rise in both countries to an overwhelming “deluge of orphans.”

He decried the “legacy of inequality which drives the virus and leads to the devastation of the women and girls of the continent” calling it “an omnibus catalogue of women’s vulnerability: rape and sexual violence, including marital rape; domestic violence.”

An impassioned Mr. Lewis declared that “if there was a powerful international force for women, we would not be in this galling predicament, if there was an international agency for women.”

He called for an agency on the scale of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), arguing that while the current agencies dealing with women’s affairs – including the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) – were performing well, a larger organization was needed.

“What we now have in place – whether it’s UNFPA or UNIFEM or the Division for the Advancement of Women – cannot do the job that needs to be done. This is not to disparage their good work; this is only to say that it has to be combined and then enhanced a hundred-fold.”

However, he warned that the “United Nations doesn’t seem to understand this truth,” citing as evidence the recent appointment of a 15-person high-level panel examining the issues of development, humanitarian assistance and the environment which now has only two female members.

Decrying this ratio, he urged efforts to expand the panel’s membership, and to have “absolute transparency in its proceedings,” adding that it must also be open for submissions from women’s groups.

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