As Women, Girls Bear Disproportionate Burden of HIV/AIDS Epidemic, No Gains Will Be Made Without Gender Equality, Ending Violence against Women, Panel Told

9 June 2011

As Women, Girls Bear Disproportionate Burden of HIV/AIDS Epidemic, No Gains Will Be Made Without Gender Equality, Ending Violence against Women, Panel Told

9 June 2011
General Assembly
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Sixty-fifth General Assembly

High-Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS

Panel Discussion (PM)

As Women, Girls Bear Disproportionate Burden of HIV/AIDS Epidemic, No Gains Will

Be Made Without Gender Equality, Ending Violence against Women, Panel Told


Women and girls bore a disproportionate burden of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and if Governments were serious about halting the disease in the next decade, they must throw their political weight squarely behind that issue by urgently expanding sexual and reproductive health services, legislating gender equality, and understanding that no gains would be made without ending violence against women, said participants today in a General Assembly panel discussion on “Women, girls and HIV”.

The panel, held in connection with this week’s United Nations High-level meeting on HIV/AIDS, was moderated by Stephanie Nolan of the Globe and Mail, and featured presentations by Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi, Minister of Health of South Africa; Siphiwe Hlophe, Swaziland Positive Living; and Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

“In my country, HIV is now a gender-based disease,” said Dr. Motsoaledi, meaning that it was spread by men but suffered by women.  As early as 2001, the president of the Medical Research Council had published findings showing that something was killing women of child-bearing age.  A committee, created in 2002, examined the files of all women who had died of pregnancy-related causes and found that HIV/AIDS had increased maternal mortality in the country by 10-fold.  He described a family scenario commonly seen today in which 10 children, ranging from ages 3 to 15, lived with their grandmother, because her three daughters — the children’s mothers — had died from AIDS.

Indeed, the chances of a young girl contracting HIV were very high, he explained.  Unless gender-based power relations shifted, “we will never be able to win the battle”.  To keep women alive, South Africa had started treating all HIV-positive women in need of it and following all the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines on the matter.  “These alone will never help us”, he said, underlining the need to re-engineer the entire health system in a way that would place primary health-care workers in villages around the country and establish school-based health care programmes.

Offering a global perspective,Mr. Osotimehin said the world was two or three months away from reaching a global population of 7 billion people, 2.8 billion of whom were young people.  About 1 billion of them were young women, 90 per cent of whom lived in the developing world:  Africa and South Asia.  “We’re looking at a situation where about 900 million young women in the developing world are prone to HIV”, he said.  “It’s an awesome figure”.  The implications of that data must be examined at the community level.

Questions about how men related to women and how young women could be empowered to protect themselves against HIV and unwanted pregnancy must be asked and responded to in a way that reflected a true understanding of the context, he said.  Collective efforts linking women and girls to gender equality and HIV were essential for achieving universal access to HIV prevention services and attaining Millennium Development Goals 4 (child health), 5 (maternal health), and 6 (combating HIV/AIDS).  Funding and political will must be increased, globally and nationally.  “We will never get there if official development assistance is the only source of looking after our people,” he added.

Discussing the view from the frontlines, Ms. Hlophe, a woman living with HIV and AIDS, said the answers to other entrenched problems hinged on reaching women and girls where they lived — even in rural areas — reversing harmful gender norms, eliminating violence against women and girls in communities, and both protecting and upholding human rights.  There were 22.5 million people in sub-Saharan Africa living with HIV and AIDS, 60 per cent of whom were women.  They required sexual and reproductive health services, but “African Governments are always running away from this”.  There was a desperate need to link HIV with sexual and reproductive health programmes.

Women also needed the support of their husbands and partners, she said, who must be part of sexual and reproductive health decisions.  It was crucial to avoid using strategies that could increase the vulnerability of women and girls.  By way of example, she said there had been a criminalization of HIV/AIDS laws that were meant to protect victims of gender-based violence.  “Without a legal framework that empowers women and girls, we’ll be talking about the same issues year after year”.

When the floor was opened for questions, participants discussed why women and girls carried a heavier HIV/AIDS burden than men, with many stressing that violence against women was a cause and consequence of HIV. Many women lacked autonomy in negotiating their sexual relationships, they said, and were uninformed both about their sexuality and the reasons why they were more susceptible to HIV.  Under the law, they had been granted fewer rights and economic opportunities, while in their communities they faced stigma and stereotypes that often profoundly shaped their beliefs about their futures.  Political leaders at the highest level had to speak explicitly about women’s rights and gender-based violence. 

There was strong consensus in the room that, unless sexual and reproductive health rights were strengthened and integrated into health services, such as family planning, and pre- and post-natal care, the battle against HIV and AIDS would not be won.  “As Governments, we must commit to fulfilling human rights, including sexual and reproductive rights, of all women,” said the Minister of Gender and Development of Liberia.  A number of speakers described HIV/AIDS as “a women’s epidemic”, while others vigorously pointed out that the issue of educating men could not be left behind.

As for the course charted over the next decade, some participants expressed regret that the political declaration on HIV and AIDS, to be adopted at the end of the high-level meeting, missed an opportunity to recognize that 40 per cent of new HIV infections occurred in young people.

The President of the International Women’s Health Coalition said “Governments often get very squeamish about the elements that are the most important,” pointing to one extremely weak paragraph dealing with the communities most at risk of contracting the HIV virus.  “Why, 30 years into the pandemic, is it still so very hard to recognize the full range of our humanity?” she asked.  Four paragraphs discussed women and girls, in the same language as in 2006.  “How is it we can land where we are with this document today,” she wondered, calling for multidimensional responses and the political will to put them in place.

Along similar lines, a representative of the Brazilian organization Gestos pointed out that the only target in the document relating to women addressed the vertical transmission of HIV; it did not speak to women across their lifecycle.  It was a shame there was no target for guaranteeing sexual and reproductive rights and ensuring an end to sexual discrimination.  She was concerned that a key message emerging from the conference was that Governments only considered women mothers.  All the social determinants that made women vulnerable to HIV/AIDS had been opposed by “fundamentalist” countries in negotiations on the text.

Drawing attention to the issue of children orphaned by HIV and AIDS, a representative of Swaziland described a study which found that one in three females had experienced some form of sexual violence as a child.  Most were girls who headed their households, some as young as 13 years old, whose parents had succumbed to AIDS and who were vulnerable to older men.  It showed that there was difficulty in the reporting; children were not aware that they had experienced abuse and that they should report the problem.

In closing remarks, Hanno Pevkur, Minister of Social Affairs of Estonia and Chair of the panel discussion, said a key message raised today focused on the importance of ensuring women’s access to HIV and sexual and reproductive health services in a manner that was free from discrimination and coercion.  Women’s human rights must be upheld and it was crucial for Governments to fulfil the range of those rights.  Violence against women must stop, he said, while laws and policies that prevented and punished such abuse were paramount for creating change.  Finally, comprehensive sexuality education must be carried out in a non-judgemental way both inside and outside of school.

Also taking part in the discussion were the representatives of Norway, United Kingdom, Brazil, Sint Maarten (Netherlands), Zambia, Kenya, Mexico, India and Poland.

The President of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) of Peru and a representative of the Kenya Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programme also spoke.

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