Saturday, July 17, 2010
To Fight AIDS, Fight Gender Inequality
By Marcela Valente
Under the banner that gender inequality is one of the main drivers of the spread of AIDS, women from around the world are uniting to demand a stop to the epidemic among all females -- whether adults or girls.
"There is too much written, too many declarations and laws. We need to move from words to action," said Argentine activist Mabel Bianco, coordinator of Women ARISE, a new collective of 35 women's networks from all parts of the globe.
Founded in March in New York, Women ARISE is ready to bring its proposals to the XVIII International AIDS Conference, taking place Jul. 18-23 in Vienna.
The women want their governments to comply with the "Agenda for Accelerated Country Action for Women, Girls, Gender Equality and HIV (2010- 2014)," launched in March by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).
UNAIDS states that HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is the principal cause of illness and death among child-bearing-age women in the world.
The agenda is a response "to the pressing need to address the persistent gender inequalities and human rights violations that put women and girls at a greater risk of HIV" through specific actions, focussing at the groups most at risk.
Included under the Women ARISE umbrella are the International Women's Health Coalition, World AIDS Campaign, Global Network of Sex Work Projects, International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS, and the African Treatment Access Movement, among many other entities.
The new collective points out that nearly half of the people with HIV in the world are women, and that in many regions the spread of the AIDS-causing virus occurs more quickly among women due to vulnerabilities arising from gender inequalities.
This reality means the activists will demand in Vienna full recognition of women's rights, a halt to violence against women, and promotion of women's participation and leadership. They will make their voices heard by participating in plenary sessions, but also through some surprise actions intended to make an impact.
In building momentum towards the Vienna conference, Women ARISE brought together feminists, women with HIV, sex workers, young women, lesbians, drug users, transvestites, AIDS health workers, as well as experts and researchers on the issue.
The groups represent women from a wide variety of cultures and regions, but what they have in common is that they are working to boost visibility of women's greater vulnerability to HIV/AIDS.
The International AIDS Society, which has convened the Vienna Conference, unites approximately 14,000 health professionals, researchers and experts from 190 countries. Civil society organisations will attend the conference to influence the global AIDS agenda.
"In Mexico City (the previous AIDS Conference, in 2008), we saw a lot of work about women, but it was very disonnected," said Bianco, who is a physician and in Argentina heads the Foundation for Women's Studies and Research (FEIM).
To overcome that incohesive approach, the women agreed to work together. "We formed an alliance to see if all of us together could make more noise," she said.
They will demand that governments comply with commitments for universal treatment for people with HIV/AIDS and for comprehensive sexual education plans. They also want to see progress in policies for reducing the spread of the disease amongst intravenous drug users, and in policies focussing on HIV/AIDS in young women and girls.
"In Argentina, Brazil and neighbouring countries, the epidemic is growing among women 15 to 24 years old. That is the only age group in the region today where infection predominates among women," said the Women ARISE coordinator.
Bianco attributes this phenomenon to lack of women's empowerment, which prevents them from demanding that male sex partners use a condom, as well as to violence against women, and their economic and physical subordination.
The physician explained that semen is the body fluid with the second highest quantity of HIVpresent, after blood, and if there is contact during sex with a lesion in the vagina, mouth or anus, there is a higher risk of infection.
More than 20,000 people are expected to attend the Vienna Conference, but Bianco predicts there will be a much smaller Latin American presence than last time: "In Mexico, 50 percent were from this region. In Vienna we'll be 10 percent."
There may be fewer from Latin America and other developing regions, attributed in part to the high cost of accommodations in Vienna, but a great influx of experts and civil society organisations from Eastern European countries is expected.
The Vienna Declaration will call upon governments "to incorporate scientific evidence" in their illicit drug policies and to decriminalise drug users.
The recommendations are based on some 30 studies that indicate the current policies to fight drugs are actually fueling the HIV epidemic, with highly negative social and health consequences.
The Declaration was drafted by former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso, of Brazil (1995-2003), Ernesto Zedillo, of Mexico (1994-2000), and César Gaviria, of Colombia (1990-1994). (END)
Violence against women is a worldwide yet still hidden problem. Freedom from the threat of harassment, battering, and sexual assault is a concept that most of us have a hard time imagining because violence is such a deep part of our cultures and lives.