Press Conference by Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS

2 March 2010

Press Conference by Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS

2 March 2010
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS

Addressing journalists at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon, Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) discuss a plan launched today strongly focused on women and aimed at addressing gender inequalities that hamper the fight against AIDS, a disease rife with complexity ‑‑ including its links to sexual and reproductive rights issues, maternal health concerns, education and women’s economic empowerment.

Asked how the plan, launched today at a high-level panel convened by the Commission on the Status of Women, differed from other United Nations initiatives, Mr. Sidibé said it was crafted with input from a large group of actors worldwide ‑‑ ranging from civil society, women’s movements, members of government and other leaders in the field ‑‑ increasing its chances of being well received.  The plan contained time-bound targets to track the progress of United Nations bodies and partners that were expected to participate, along with a clear division of labour for achieving its goals.

Called “Agenda for Accelerated Country Action for Women, Girls, Gender Equality and HIV (2010-2014),” he said the five-year plan would focus participants on providing women with the skill and information needed to successfully negotiate their needs, protect the human rights of women, and ensure access to preventative measures or treatment.

Mr. Sidibé spoke out strongly against a trend that saw women and girls being made victims of rape, trafficking and other violence, and then lacking access to medical care ‑‑ which was leading to the high rate of HIV-infection among women.  He said, of 400,000 children born in Africa with HIV, almost a third died before their first birthday for lack of access to medication.  That number also represented the large number of women who were untested for AIDS.

“What we are trying to do is to make sure that we mobilize the world around a new urgency about stopping violence against women […], making sure that the HIV/AIDS response will also get [women] more access to services […],” he said, “And an urgency which will call for a new mobilization of leaders in order to reduce the number of new infection among girls.”

Singer and HIV-activist Annie Lennox, who spoke alongside Mr. Sidibé, traced her inspiration to an AIDS-charity concert held in November 2003, hosted by Nelson Mandela, who had launched a personal AIDS-awareness campaign in 2002.

Sitting in the exercise yard at Robben Island, where Mr. Mandela had been imprisoned for nearly 20 years, she attended a press conference where the former South African President spoke of the damage that wrought by AIDS in South Africa, which had one of the world’s highest rates of HIV-infection.  “As a fairly well-informed Western woman and a mother thinking about that, [I was] thinking, ‘Why didn’t I know that the African AIDS pandemic had killed so many people?  And why didn’t I know that many of them were women?’” she said.  “It struck me as a dark moment.”

When the disease began to make headlines in the 1980s, the face of AIDS was that of sex workers, intravenous drug users and gay men, Ms. Lennox said.  But the high rate of infection among women ‑‑ a rate that increased even by the day ‑‑ had changed the profile of the disease to one dominated by women.

Ms. Lennox wore a bright pink t-shirt to the press conference bearing the phrase “HIV-positive”, designed by a South African activist, Zackie Achmat, who founded the Treatment Action Campaign movement in which she was now active.

“AIDS has not disappeared.  It’s still here and it’s very, very strong,” she said, telling journalists that she believed there were as many African-American women in Washington, D.C., infected by HIV as in Rwanda.

Both Ms. Lennox and Mr. Sidibé underlined the fact that women of reproductive age were at the forefront of those succumbing to the virus.  Mr. Sidibé said, during a recent visit to Swaziland he had learned that half of its women between the ages of 25 and 29 years were HIV-positive, representing a large tranche of individuals poised to contribute to society, but who could become sick at any time.  After 25 years of investing community, family and government resources in a group of women, they were starting to become sick, instead of taking their place in society.

Suksma Ratri, a third panellist and member of Indonesia’s Positive Women’s Network, discovered she was HIV-positive after separating from her husband.  When he fell gravely ill, she received a text message from her husband’s doctor suggesting that she and her daughter be tested for HIV/AIDS.  Her daughter was found to free from the virus, but she was tested positive.

Ms. Suksma said it was important not just to educate women, but to prepare men and other family members, so that HIV-positive women were not stigmatized.  And while she did not doubt the benefits of prenatal testing, she told journalists she believed it could create false signals to men that only women carried the virus.  HIV-positive women were often told that they were not allowed to have intimate sexual relations, and were not encouraged to get married or have children, which she believed was wrong.

She stressed the importance of having role models that were open about their HIV-status, which could help remove the mystery surrounding a disease that people often preferred to talk of discreetly.

“Our minds still tend to be stuck back 25 years ago,” said Ms. Lennox, on the same issue.  “People think, ‘Oh, I’m in a relationship,’ but they maybe don’t appreciate that many, many married women in long-term relationships are very vulnerable to becoming HIV-positive.”

Asked by a journalist how UNAIDS would educate people about AIDS in countries with conservative attitudes towards sexuality, Mr. Sidibé emphasized the need to be culturally sensitive, saying that the focus should be on equipping “gatekeepers” with appropriate information and understanding the ways that different societies communicated about sexuality.

He said the issue also lay in determining how novel ideas were integrated into society, since, in the age of global telecommunications, no society could remain totally closed.

Mr. Sidibé fielded several questions from one journalist asking for the position of UNAIDS on AIDS activists who were imprisoned for their work, or instances where Governments had expelled United Nations agencies over objections to their AIDS-related work.  He said UNAIDS was a strong advocate for sex education and AIDS-related preventative measures, by fighting homophobic laws and fighting for the rights of infected persons who were denied medication.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.