U.N. Official Says Women Need To Be Empowered in Fight Against HIV/AIDS
Women must be empowered and respected, particularly by men, in the fight against HIV/AIDS, Nafis Sadik, United Nations special envoy for HIV/AIDS in the Asia-Pacific region, said Friday at a poverty alleviation conference in Beijing, Reuters reports. According to Sadik, lack of respect for women is a primary reason for the spread of the virus.
"Gender-based violence and discrimination on grounds of gender drive the HIV and AIDS epidemic among women," Sadik said, adding, "Empowerment of women -- equipping them with self-esteem, the knowledge, the ability to protect themselves -- will be of critical importance in winning the battle." Sadik also said, "Women suffer doubly. First, from HIV and AIDS itself, and secondly from the stigma associated with the disease. Women are routinely blamed for infecting their husbands, though it is almost always the men who infect their wives."
Sadik also said that in Asia, at least 75 million men regularly engage in sexual activity with the approximately 10 million female commercial sex workers in the region. "The results of male behavior can be seen in changing patterns of infection," she said, adding, "Today, about one-third of all people living with HIV in China are women, compared with one in 10 in 1995." In addition, Sadik said she hopes that Chinese politicians, who are predominately male, will become more involved in spreading the message of safer sex. According to Reuters, 700,000 people in China are HIV-positive, and the virus primarily is transmitted through sex. Sadik said, "China must enlist the support of its male leadership and men generally, encouraging them to adopt consistently responsible sexual behavior and ensuring that they respect their partners, and all women, as equals" (Blanchard, Reuters, 10/17).
Conference on HIV/AIDS, Gender Violence Calls for Joint Efforts To Fight Disease
In related news, HIV/AIDS and violence against women and girls are "dual pandemics" that must be jointly addressed in order to wage a successful fight against the disease, participants at a conference in Nairobi, Kenya, said recently, Inter Press Service reports. The conference -- called Strengthening Linkages Between Sexual and Reproductive Health and HIV/AIDS Services -- included donors, civil society and government officials working in the health sectors of 13 countries in Central, East and Southern Africa. Ludfine Anyango of the United Nations Development Programme said, "We have continued to treat these two issues separately, yet they go hand in hand. The complexity of HIV/AIDS calls upon us to join together and seriously address sexual violence."
According to a World Health Organization report released at the meeting, 39% of sexually active girls in South Africa say they have been forced to have sex. Inter Press Service reports that sexual and gender violence also is widespread in East Africa, where countries such as Kenya have continued to record an increase in the number of sexually abused women and girls. WHO has called on national HIV/AIDS plans to address sexual violence because the risk of HIV transmission is greater when sex is forced. Nduku Kilonzo, director of Liverpool VCT Care and Treatment, said, "Sexual violence is fundamentally a public health problem that oftentimes results in HIV/AIDS. We know that due to violence, many women are prone to the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. For this reason, we must start to look at sexual and gender-based violence as a key intervention when addressing HIV/AIDS."
Inter Press Service reports that despite international and regional tools such as U.N. declarations that require signatories to address violence against women and girls, it "is argued that lax implementation of these instruments stems from the fact that there are no sanctions or punitive measures against countries that fail to adhere to them." Although there are increasing calls for laws to address sexual violence, marital rape is becoming a more serious issue, according to Inter Press Service. In most African countries, laws do not consider marital rape as a form of sexual violence, which puts women at an increased risk of HIV from their husbands. For example, the WHO report cited three studies in India in which more than 80% of HIV-positive women were monogamous -- a situation that is reflected in several parts of Africa, where even women who know their partner is HIV-positive are unable to practice safer sex. Vivian Sebahire, coordinator of Solidarity Women for Development in the Congo, said, "Many women are afraid to say no to sex with their spouses because they may be beaten. They cannot even ask their partners to use condoms because they will be battered or suspected to be having other affairs. In the end, they are forced to have sex without protection and may end up getting infected."
To address the situation, some experts and analysts argue that countries must enact laws that recognize and specifically address sexual violence in order to effectively fight HIV/AIDS, Inter Press Service reports (Mulama, Inter Press Service, 10/15).