Ms. Noeleen Heyzer
Executive Director, UNIFEM

United Nations General Assembly Special Session on HIV AIDS

Wednesday 27 June 2001 United Nations, New York


Esteemed colleagues,

    We are gathered at the close of this historic three days, when the world's governments convened as one body for the first time to address the greatest crisis of our time. We feel a sense of hope because of what our governments have managed to accomplish together in the declaration that has emerged from this Special Session. If the strong gender perspective that has been incorporated into this joint commitment is reflected in all policies, resource allocation and actions from this point forward, we can truly tum the tide of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

    I would like to very briefly summarize the outcome for women and girls of this historic meeting in four overall points:

    First, the greater threat that HIV/AIDS poses for women and girls - especially the young - and the affects of the pandemic on women's lives and futures are now undisputed.

    Second, there is a fast-growing understanding that gender inequality and power imbalances between women and men in every society heighten women's vulnerability to infection and leave them with heavier burdens when HIV/AIDS enters households and commodities. At the same time, the world is gradually acknowledging that because of their sex, women and girls have more limited access to HIV/AIDS-related information, prevention, treatment, care, support, commodities and services.

    Third, there is a new level of awareness. We have recognized that we need to deepen our understanding of the gender dimensions of HIV/AIDS. In that way, we will be able to translate the declaration into targeted plans and programmmes, into equal access to information, services, protections, and resources.

    Finally, there is a sense of urgency. We leave this meeting with a promising new possibility. A Global Fund is under construction - a clean slate on which we can inscribe the lessons learned from two decades of HIV/AIDS. If the gender issues highlighted this week are adequately addressed at this new starting point, and if the international community involves women equally in the design of the Global Fund and the decisions about its mechanisms, operation and allocations, we can feel confident that we will have learned from history, and will not be doomed to repeat it.

    As the HIV/AIDS crisis continues to unfold, danger and opportunity are the two possible prognoses. The outcome will depend in large part on whether we heed this meeting's call - the call to recognize the ways in which the epidemics have different causes and consequences for males and females, and the call to approach
every policy, programme and plan from a gender perspective.

    What, in tangible terms, does a `gender perspective' mean? Consider the phenomenon of what we call `care' - the day-to-day survival and coping of millions of people infected and affected by the virus. Just recently, the global community began to realize that responsibility for care falls almost exclusively on women and girls. But until now, because the world so methodically falls to value or even to see women's work, the growing weight of their care burden went unnoticed, and no urgency was assigned to addressing this issue.

    A gender perspective allows us to see `care' in the parts of the world most beset by HIV/AIDS for what it is -- a story of women sacrificing their lives to fill the gap left by governments and the global community because of their gender blindness. It is as if a massive natural disaster had erupted decades ago, and while local and international rescue teams were being mobilized to respond, women and girls were pulled from their lives and jobs and classrooms to search for survivors, tend to the wounded, nurse the doing, comfort the bereaved and bury the dead. But the rescue teams were never assembled, and reinforcements never arrived for the wives and daughters and grandmothers managing the disaster: no personnel and no supplies; no equipment; no painkillers; no food, bedding, soap, clothing or temporary shelter; no training; no medicine; no trauma counseling. When sick breadwinners did not get better and help did not arrive, savings were spent, and then assets sold. Household budgets were scavenged for a bedpan, a towel, a roll of bandages, a roof for a house now jammed with hungry children, a coffin, a funeral.

    At what cost to women and girls, and to society at large, is the gender perspective of care ignored? Fields go untended. Sick and well go hungry. Development is postponed. Girls are pulled out of school. Women remain at home, outside the public sphere, excluded from decision-making, deprived of opportunities to become self-reliant, economically-independent, full citizens with power and authority over their own lives, and participatory roles in the world they inhabit.

    On the global scale, that gender blindness obstructs our view as the Millennium Goals grow ever more elusive: absolute poverty cannot be halved, and universal girls' education cannot be achieved, if development for women is forever postponed to meet the world's need for their unpaid toil. The care economy grows, but remans invisible and unrecorded, supported by billions of additional hours of wageless labour that appear nowhere in indices of GDP and figure nowhere in calculations of the need for intemational aid or debt relief. In place of the progress to which governments have committed themselves in resolution after resolution, convention after convention, women's subordinate roles in society are reinforced. And the expertise that women do acquire - intimate familiarity with the needs of families and communities affected by HIV and AIDS - is lost to programme developers. On a personal scale, we seldom hear how the story ends for so-called `home-based care' providers: they bury their fathers, then their husbands and children, fall ill themselves, and in the prime of their lives, they lie down, alone, to die.

    The crisis continues. The danger still looms. But alternatives are now indeed possible, with support from a Global Fund that places gender equality in its center, as a guiding principle, an indicator of progress and a measure of substantive success.

    A gender-sensitive Global Fund offers new promise to the women and girls who care for the millions left sick and orphaned.. It provides an unparalleled opportunity to design and reformulate intemational cooperation that will assist all countries to explicitly address gender inequalities, and in so doing, to halt the spread and soften the social and economic impact of HIV/AIDS.

    An ideal Global Fund, craftet with and for women and men, can succeed as no other intemational response has so far. What will it take on the part of each of us here? Partnership, continued and ever-strengthenng leadership, solidarity. What will women and girls need and look for from the Global Fund? For starters, a solid, joint commitment to:
. Setting realistic targets anc linking each directly to gender equality;
. systematically involvíng women in the development of all HIV/AIDS-related research, policies, strategies and inteventions
. disaggregating all data to increase our understanding in every country of who is infected, what factors help and hinde: the spread of the virus, who suffers most from its impact, what form that suffering takes, ani what targeted interventions are required
. undertaking gender reviews if national legislation, policies and budgets related to HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, care and ímpact mitigation
. strengthening, through the involvement of women and young people, national plans of action to include comprehensive andtargeted interventions aimed at: increasing access to, availability and use of voluntary and confidential counselling and testing services for women
. protecting women and girls from gender-based violence, abuse and sexual exploitation . customizing information and education efforts to address the special needs of women and girls
. specifically focusing information and education efforts to address gender biases and inequality
. guaranteeing the rights of women and girls to legal protection, including assurance of land, property and custody entitlements, equal access to treatment and commodities, and freedom from harinful customs and practices
. improving availability of and access to prevention services and resources, including female and mate condoms.

    This is a time for humility. We must recognize that we were slow to see the gender dimensions of HIV/AIDS and slower still to incorporate a gender perspective into our responses. But we are now free to relegate that period to the past, and bring the future commitments from this Special Session home, along with a stubborn, collective willingness to not only recognize women's human rights, but to mirror them in all policíes, plans, legislation, decísion-making, representation - and, most immediately and practically of all, in all allocations.

    The new Global Fund will certainly be different in size and scope. We have a chance to make it just as unique in its philosophy -- designed from the start to ensure and to prove that gender equality need not remain a lofty ideal, but can be a guiding principle. And as we succeed, our reward will be increasing millions of women AND men, girls AND boys living longer, better, happier lives in a world made more safe, more just and more humane. We owe this to our children.