GEETA RAO GUPTA,
PRESIDENT INTERNATIONAL CENTER FOR RESEARCH ON WOMEN WASHINGTON, D.C. At the UNITED NATIONS GENERAL ASSEMBLY
26TH SPECIAL SESSION ON HIV/AIDS New York, 25-27th June, 2001
New York, 27th June, 2001
Mr. Secretary General,
Ladies and Gentlemen.
Here we are, almost at the end of this Special Session of the General Assembly and all the intensive work that led up to it. Through this session we have succeeded in focusing global attention on this pandemic. We have talked about the threat the HIV/AIDS pandemic poses to us as a global community and we have pledged to work together, despite our differences, to intensify our efforts to combat this scourge.
It seems appropriate to use this moment at the end of the Special Session to ask ourselves: What have we really learned? Once we, as representatives of civil society, governments, international agencies, and corporations, leave this august hall and return to our respective worlds, what must we do as we go forward?
From where I sit, as a representative of a civil society organization, I believe that this Special Session and the pandemic has taught us five key lessons which we must draw upon to define our priorities as we move forward.
Lesson #l: We have learned that prevention, treatment, care and support are mutually reinforcing elements of an effective response to the epidemic. It is not useful to pit prevention against treatment or treatment against care because each of these is an essential part of the required comprehensive approach that must be used to fight HIV/AIDS. There is no single magic bullet and there never will be. This is a complex disease that will always require multiple interventions, simultaneously implemented and available.
So let us resolve to end useless discussions that seek to identify which intervention is more important. We have a lot to do and we must work together to garner the resources necessary to strengthen prevention, treatment, care and support for all, regardiess of nationality, religion. sex, age, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.
Lesson #2: There can be no debate after this session about the role that gender inequality plays in HIV/AIDS. Gender inequality fuels the pandemic. Gender inequality is now fatal, it kills our young, and our women and men in their most productive years. Gender norms that restrict women's access to productive resources such as education, land, income, and credit, create an unequal balance of power in society that favors men and greatly compromises women's ability to protect themselves against infection, cope with illness once infected, or care for those who are infected. By far the most disturbing form of male power is violence against women - a daily reality or threat in the lives of too many women worldwide that is a gross violation of women's rights and acts as a significant deterrent to prevention, treatment, care and support. In the coming decade let us resolve that we will work harder to protect women's basic right to safety and bodily integrity; that we will reduce the gender gap in education; that we will improve women's access to economic resources, assets, and opportunities; that we will invest in making the female condom more accessible and affordable, and in making microbicides a reality. Let us resolve that we will invest in girls and women because it is the right thing to do and the smart thing to do for women, households, communities and entire nations - and because without that investment we will never contain this disease.
Lesson #3: We have learned that we cannot hide behind a shroud of silence with regard to sex and sexuality and its role in the spread of this epidemic. The definition of male and female sexuality in society greatly affects both women's and men's vulnerability to HIV infection. For example, we have leaned that for women, societal norms that dictate that "good" women must be ignorant about sex and passive in sexual interactions, makes it difficult for them to be proactive in negotiating safer sex options. We have also leaned that unrelenting norms of virginity for young women, paradoxically, restricts their access to information and puts young girls at risk of rape and sexual coercion. Conversely, we now know that prevailing norms of masculinity that dictate that variety in sexual partners is essential to men's nature as men, puts men, particularly young men at risk because it coerces them into experimenting with sex in unsafe ways to prove their manhood. Similarly, the notion that sexual domination over women is the defining characteristic of male sexuality, contributes to homophobia and exposes women to the risk of physical and sexual violence.
Many countries have learned the hard way the cost of supporting a culture of silence and stigma surrounding sex - by losing lives. We must openly and without embarrassment discuss sex and sexuality and we must foster an acceptance of diversity in sexuality and sexual experience. Homosexuality and sex work are realities in every country. Stigmatizing homosexual women and men or sex workers is a violation of human rights and is the cause of enormous human suffering and pain. Public health research has shown us that such stigma fuels the spread of HIV/AIDS. We cannot and must not let our misguided morality, or for that matter, our politics, stand in the way of public health imperatives. Those who, after this Special Session, continue to oppose a free discussion of sex and an acceptance of all forms of sexuality must know that history will judge them harshly and that the number of lives lost to this epidemic will serve as witness to their actions.
Lesson#4: We have learned that as adults, parents, decision-makers and experts we must do all we can to empower our children and youth in this epidemic. They are our future and this epidemic is rapidly threatening that future. The millions of orphans who are left behind and burdened with the adult responsibility of taking care of themselves and their siblings, or the infected children who must suffer the agony of illness and disease, or the young women and men who struggle to discover and enjoy their newly-found sexuality in a world that is increasingly dangerous and deadly - all these young people are in need and we must respond because they need adults who they can trust and depend on, adults who will not stand in judgment but will respect their rights as individuals, adults who will listen to them and value their perspective. Let us resolve to empower our youth, particularly girls, to allow them to organize, to provide them full and free access to information and resources, and to provide them all the social support they need as they face a future that is tainted by this epidemic.
Lesson#5: Finally, we have learned that to combat this epidemic we need cooperation and collaboration and a sharing of resources. We have leaned that as governments, civil society, intemational organizations, or private sector corporations, as representatives of the North or the global South, we have a lot to offer but on our own we can achieve very little. Each of us has resources that are uniquely ours. For example, community-based organizations, because they are at the forefront of this epidemic have a wealth of experience that is just as valuable as the financial resources that donors govemments have. We must share our respective resources and coordinate our efforts, but most importantly we must serve as watch-dogs for each other, because one of us can afford to slacken our commitment: We must operate transparently and in an accountable manner. We must honestly debate, discuss, and respect each other's perspective, and sometimes we must compromise. This is not an epidemic about them, it is about us.
We have spent these three days issuing to the world a declaration of our commitment, now we are accountable for acting upon that commitment together guided by the lessons that experience has taught us and by the principles of non-discrimination, mutual respect, humility, and compassion.