8 September 2008
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


African women have little say in sexual and reproductive choices and find themselves relying on care systems that were often insensitive to their needs and vulnerabilities, correspondents were told at a Headquarters press conference today, held ahead of a 9 September Symposium on “The Social and Economic Dimensions of HIV/AIDS in Africa”.

Jean-Marc Coicaud, Director of the United Nations University Office in New York (UNU-ONY), and David Sahn, International Professor of Economics and Director of Cornell University’s Food and Nutrition Policy Programme, told reporters that African women carried a disproportionate share of the epidemic’s burden; were often subjected to violence; and they were prevented from exercising their rights.

Mr. Sahn added that an estimated 25 million African adults today were infected; 11 per cent of them in sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for about two thirds of adults afflicted with the diseases globally.  While there had been some progress in combating the scourge over the past few years and that battle had shown some progress, the fact remained that, annually, over the past several years, nearly 3 million women and children had been infected in the sub-continent, and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS remained “astonishingly high” in countries such as Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.  In some, such as South Africa, the figure was close to 20 per cent of the population.

Thus, he said, the real motivation behind tomorrow’s meeting was the continued urgency for finding answers to spread the halt of AIDS as well as to mitigate the implications of the disease once present.  Acknowledging that a lot of time and attention were paid to the problem by the United Nations system, he hoped that the Symposium could make a somewhat unique contribution in that context, in so far as the purpose of the conference was to shine the spotlight on the complexities of the linkages between poverty, reproductive health, sexual health and sexual behaviours, HIV/AIDS and economic and social outcomes in sub-Saharan Africa; bringing together the research community and policymakers to discuss the role and contribution of research to moving forward.

To that end, he added, the Symposium expects to examine:  what had been learned to date about links between HIV/AIDS, poverty, reproductive/sexual health and behaviour; the effectiveness of HIV prevention policies and interventions in Africa; experiences in the roll out of anti-retroviral therapies and other interventions; the short- and long-term economic and social costs of HIV/AIDS; and approaches to future research and action.

A group of pre-eminent and renowned scholars and researchers will present papers and address the state of knowledge, with a particular focus on the most recent findings and frontiers of research and existing knowledge gaps.  Some 20 experts will take part and Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro is slated to deliver a keynote speech.  Convened by the United Nations University in partnership with Cornell University of Ithaca, New York, the Symposium is the third in a series designed to identify and prioritize research gaps that need to be filled, thereby enabling UNU to map out a more effective way forward.

Explaining the rationale for the series, UNU-ONY Director Coicaud said there was a huge lack of knowledge on the continent, in general.  Also, Africa was lagging behind with regard to the Millennium Development Goals and African universities had been “neglected”.  Those issues needed to be rectified.  Therefore, the idea was for UNU-Cornell to establish an intellectual and policy map for key issues concerning Africa’s development.

In response to a question, Mr. Sahn said, although there was a lot of controversy over prevalence rates of the disease, which in itself was a complex and controversial issue, there was no question that education was at the heart of any prevention strategy in the fight against HIV/AIDS.  “That is easier to say,” he said.  “The question is:  how do you educate and who do you educate?  And so these issues of identifying high-risk population groups and effectively reaching them is something we are still learning an awful lot about and something that we really just haven’t done a good job at anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa.”

To another question on why the data showed such extraordinarily and uniquely high infection rates among women in sub-Saharan Africa that were not repeated elsewhere in the world, Mr. Sahn said the past few years had seen several very well-conducted national surveys and none of them had in fact shown that the male-female gap in HIV/AIDS was an anomaly.  That gap still continued to show, even in such well-conducted surveys.

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For information media • not an official record