EGM on HIV-AIDS and its Gender Implications concludes in Windhoek

International experts gathered in Windhoek from 13 to 17 November 2000 in a meeting on "The HIV/AIDS Pandemic and its Gender Implications" and urged Governments and the international community to immediately distribute emergency food aid, including nutrient supplements and home-based care packs to people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS in the most severely affected countries and regions of the world.

The Expert Group Meeting was organized by the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women, in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) to address the seriousness of HIV/AIDS pandemic and its gender dimensions. The Namibian Government hosted the meeting which brought together experts and observers from different regions working on HIV/AIDS as well as observers from governments, the United Nations System and non-governmental organizations.

Experts concluded that the HIV/AIDS pandemic must now be regarded as a disaster which requires short term relief measures to alleviate immediate emergencies and long-term interventions that transform relations between women and men to eliminate gender inequality and reduce the risk of infection.

In many countries, women and girls are today bearing a heavier burden than men when it comes to HIV infection. Gender inequalities limit women’s access to HIV/AIDS treatment, care and support, including antiretroviral therapies. HIV positive women face stigmatization and are more likely than men to be blamed, stigmatized and abandoned by their families. Women who are known or suspected to be HIV positive are especially vulnerable to violence. They face the possibility of being abused, abandoned or even killed. During conflict and political instability women and girls may face systematic rape and other war crimes which put women at risk of HIV infection. The experts recommended to provide sensitive social and counselling services and referral to legal and law enforcement agencies with special attention to women at high risk of sexual violence including those in prison and other forms of detention, refugees, asylum seekers and indigenous women.

The role of men and changes in gender relations was considered a key element in fighting the pandemic. Experts urged governments, international organizations and NGOs to significantly upscale their work with men to challenge gender inequalities in relation to HIV and AIDS, and to encourage men’s fuller participation in prevention, impact alleviation and care.

The experts highlighted that information was a critical resource in the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Too many people remained ignorant about the disease and their body and did not have the information to avoid infection. Experts recommended that the formal and non-formal systems of education play a leading role in preventing HIV infection, stigma and discrimination through attention to a safe environment and the inclusion of gender sensitive education about safer sex, life skills and behaviour change.

Experts recognized that culture and religion exert a significant influence over people’s lives. Cultural and religious practices enhance the vulnerability of communities to HIV/AIDS, but can also contribute to prevention, treatment, care and support. It was suggested to work together with religious and traditional leaders to identify the cultural and religious practices that influence gender relations, and to eliminate practices that increase the vulnerability of women, young girls and children to HIV/AIDS.

Poverty is not only a cause but also a consequence of HIV/AIDS. Poverty and unequal access to resources is a particular problem for many women. The extended family unit, the backbone of society in developing countries is being decimated by HIV/AIDS. Women’s economic dependence makes it impossible for women to negotiate safe sex or it forces them to exchange sex for survival or to resort to different forms of sex work.

The role of women as caregivers was also discussed. Home-based care is an effective care and support strategy. It is also putting grave physical, emotional, social and economic consequences for women. Many of the countries most affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic are highly dependent upon agriculture, and most of their workforce is employed in this sector. Women face particular constraints as farmers, processors and marketers of food including limited or no land rights and the prospective loss of access to land when husbands die. Experts urged Governments to enact, implement and enforce laws that grant women equal rights to inheritance and ownership of property, including land, to improve their economic status, to enhance the ability of women, families and communities to deal with HIV/AIDS, and to enhance development.

It was recommended that Governments ensure access to free and voluntary counselling and testing for HIV infection, to affordable treatments for opportunistic infections and anti-retroviral therapies, and access to the means to ensure a healthy diet, including recommended nutrient supplements in order to increase life expectancy for people living with HIV infection.

The experts’ recommendations will be forwarded to the forty-fifth session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women which takes place in March 2001.