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Women Vital in Global Fight Against AIDS
email this pageprint this pageemail usMehru Jaffer - Inter Press Service
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July 21, 2010

Vienna - Empowering women could more effectively help in curbing the spread of HIV, Bill Gates, Microsoft chairman and philanthropist said at the AIDS conference here Monday.

Speaking to reporters at the 18th International AIDS conference, he cited the example of Avahan, a national HIV prevention programme in India supported by the Gates Foundation co-founded by him. The active participation of women, he said, has worked successfully in slowing the spread of the virus among India's high risk population.

At the heart of Avahan's programme is empowering female sex workers in four Indian states to insist on the use of condoms. Data from some of Avahan's target areas suggests that the use of condoms by sex workers is responsible for a meteoric drop in the rate of sexually transmitted infections among people at risk. Several independent studies are under way to help evaluate Avahan's long-term impact.

"It is empowering to hear Gates support the empowerment of women," said Nazneen Damji, Gender Equality and HIV/AIDS Advisor at the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). But Damji's chief concern remains that the majority of women around the world often hold little freedom of choice over their own sexual rights.

"It is not enough that women have access to condoms. They also need to have the confidence to fearlessly refuse to have sex with men who do not use a condom," Damji said.

At the conference, UNIFEM and ATHENA, a network to fight AIDS, released a new report highlighting how despite international commitments, HIV positive women's participation and voices are largely missing from decision-making processes in the fight against HIV and AIDS.

The report titled 'Transforming the National AIDS Response: Advancing Women's Leadership and Participation' also identifies strategies that can be adopted to advance the involvement of HIV positive women.

"Through our work on the ground we have repeatedly heard the voices of women as they provide concrete examples of what can work on the ground in preventing or reducing the epidemic. But these voices are missing in policy responses," said Inιs Alberdi, executive director, UNIFEM. "This report highlights the importance of effective participation of women, especially HIV positive women, in being part of the solutions and in finding sustainable, effective strategies to address HIV and AIDS."

The scrupulous implementation of these recommendations by all parties involved at the national and global level can affect change on the ground, UNIFEM officials say.

"To see HIV positive women and activists endorsing it in consultations here and further defining how to implement the recommendations in their regions is a testimony to how the report can work on the ground," said Tyler Crone, ATHENA network coordinator and lead author of the report.

HIV/AIDS is the fourth leading cause of death worldwide, claiming an estimated two million lives in 2008 alone. Of the 33.4 million individuals living with HIV, 31.3 million are adults and half of them are women.

Globally, women and men are affected by HIV and AIDS in almost equal numbers. However the proportion of women living with HIV is increasing. Young women constitute a growing share of new infections, representing about two-thirds of all new cases among people between the age of 15 and 24. In 2009, the World Health Organsiation reported that HIV was the leading cause of death of women between 15 years and 44 years in low and middle income countries.

It is estimated that more than 90 percent of the 1.7 million women living with HIV in Asia became infected from their husbands or partners they were involved with in long-term relationships. Women, experts say, are often unaware of their male partner's sexual habits outside the relationship.

Nearly 60 percent of adults living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa are women. In the Caribbean, HIV prevalence rates among women have jumped from 46 percent in 2001 to 53 percent in 2008, making it the second most affected region after sub-Saharan Africa. About 40 percent newly reported HIV cases in Eastern Europe and Central Asia in 2006 were among women.

Data collected in Central Asia reveals that 90 percent of people living in rural areas are not aware of the use of condoms, and 73 percent of men and 90 percent of women are opposed to pre-martial sex.

In Central Asia, the lack of knowledge about HIV/AIDS often means women, not men, face the brunt of discrimination and stigmatisation, according to Damira Sartbzeva, UNIFEM's regional programme director for the Commonwealth of Independent States, who is based in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Around the world, the fear of physical and psychological violence often prevents infected women from accessing treatment and counseling. It also limits their ability to mitigate the impact of the disease on their children, experts say.

The latest UNIFEM report strongly recommends that affected women should be recognised as key stakeholders in the AIDS response. It also recommends that a democratic and transparent process be ensured to represent HIV positive women in civil society bodies and community based organisations. Ensuring that, UNIFEM says, is vital in the global fight against AIDS.

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