“Women are physically more vulnerable than men to HIV infection, and poverty and gender discrimination often put them at risk” observes Suman Mehta, HIV/AIDS Co-coordinator for the United Nations Population Fund(UNFPA). “We know what we must do, but we must do so on a broader scale”, she adds.
But what are the women themselves doing to mobilise themselves so as to mount an effective campaign to face the challenges, by way of mobilising themselves and expanding effective solution for women and girls affected by the disease?
This was the key question at a special session which brought together a number of influential women from politics and advocacy around the world. Titled “Women united against AIDS: A strategic dialogue among high powered women.”
In his opening statement, Dr Peter Piot observed that while a host of social, economic and cultural factors leave women disproportionately vulnerable to HIV, some of the most inspiriting and effective responses to the challenge have been driven by women.
Noting the presence of influential women from politics – Maureen Manawasa of Zambian, Jeannette Kagame of Rwanda, Princess Rattanna-Devi Norodom from Cambodia, and Kim Campbell of Canada – Dr Piot aid responses to the HIVA/AIDS should now move on to the political agenda.
Other panelists during the discussions forum included the executive director of UNICEF, Carol Bellamy; Dr Nafis Sadiq, UN Special envoy for AIDS in Asia, and Beatrice Were from the International Community of Women living with AIDS.
Were challenged women in influential positions to talk openly about HIV/AIDS. She observed that some leaders have miserably failed to take on their responsibilities of being role-models in influencing change and addressing the threat posed by HIV/AIDS.
In an apparent reference to women leaders coming from Africa she said, “You must use the abundant financial resources at your disposal for advocacy. Africa is tired of the wars raging on the continent, instead let us focus on the real problems caused by HIV/AIDS.”
Leaders world-wide and those in Africa in particular have also been criticised for not highlighting the problem in their political agenda. Maureen Manawasa, however, said there was recognition that indeed the issue of AIDS need to be incorporated in the broader political agenda of the African leaders. She said under the New Economic Plan for African Development, the issue of HIV/AIDS has been incorporated.
Figures released at the conference also indicate that young people of both sexes suffer from stigma, discrimination, misinformation and denial of access to services. Touching on the issue, Kim Campbell said empowering youth with leadership skills was also critically important. She said this would enable them make informed decisions on issues of HIV/AIDS.
The issue of cultural and traditional values was singled out as one of the main barriers to frank and open discussion on HIV/AIDS. This was more entrenched in some parts of the world. As a result most young people and women are denied information and services that can assist them in checking the spread of the disease.
Nafis Sadiq challenged women to stand up and confront these barriers. She said this can be done at the political, tribal and local levels. In some areas women holding high political have demonstrated that given will they can succeed. Beatrice Were gave an example of the wife of the Senegalese leader for untiring efforts in promoting the use of condoms.
AIDS 2002 Conference News produced by Health & Development Networks/Key Correspondent Team