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Africa's youth on the edge of the chasm

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Africa's youth on the edge of the chasm

Stephen Lewis raises alarm over loss of young women to HIV/AIDS
From Africa Renewal: 
A counselor for South Africa's "Love Life" AIDS education group gives advice to another young woman. Photo: Getty Images/Brent Stirton

Since his appointment in January 2001 as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, Ambassador Stephen Lewis has earned a reputation as a fierce, plainspoken advocate for greater action against the HIV/AIDS pandemic sweeping the continent. He was an early - and often lonely - voice for a much stronger focus on the special challenges to and contributions from African women in the struggle against the disease.

On 12 July, Mr. Lewis delivered the first of two major addresses on women and AIDS at the International AIDS Conference in Bangkok, drawing attention to the soaring HIV infection rates among young African women and calling for urgent action.

The announcement that girls and young women now account for 75 per cent of all Africans aged 15­24 living with HIV and AIDS, he said, "is unprecedented in the history of the pandemic and . . . perhaps the most ominous warning of what is yet to come."

The new data, released a week earlier by the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), revealed that women (both older and younger) comprised more than 50 per cent of the HIV-positive population in every country in sub-Saharan Africa. "The astonishing sameness of the figures demonstrates the deep-rooted and universal nature of the gender inequality," Mr. Lewis asserted. "But even more it demonstrates the potential for a further explosion of infection amongst the 15­24 age group." If such inequities intensify, he cautioned, "then the youth of Africa are walking on the edge of the chasm."

Mr. Lewis believed that African leaders do not fully understand the situation. "If they did, they'd be howling from the rooftops and changing legislative policies at every turn."

He asked: "Where are the laws that descend with draconian force on those who are guilty of rape and sexual violence? Where are the laws that deal with rape within marriage? Where are the laws in every country that enshrine property and inheritance for women?"

He recited a long list of missing legislation: laws to protect women from stigma and discrimination, to raise the minimum age of marriage, to abolish school fees so that girls and other children orphaned by AIDS can go to school. He asked why there are no laws or regulatory mechanisms to guarantee that HIV-positive young women and girls have access to treatment in proportion to their numbers. "Where are the laws that guarantee equality before the law for women in all matters economic and social? In short, where are the laws which move decisively towards gender equality?"

Profound changes in attitudes and behaviours can take generations, Mr. Lewis noted. But "in the meantime, we're losing the women and girls of Africa." It is well past time for political leaders to create a legal framework that can give women a chance to resist the virus, he said. And the danger of inaction is stark: "Whole societies are unraveling, as parts of Africa are depopulated of their women."