Most policy makers have failed to address that one of the most significant causes for the continued devastation wreaked by this disease is deep patterns of systemic and intense discrimination against women—their lack of voice, and the lack of real choices in their lives as a result of entrenched gender inequality and inequity.
Expanding on one aspect of her April 13 talk at The Club entitled "Threats to Women's Rights Around the World," Ramdas offers a look into how discrimination against women has affected the spread of HIV/AIDS and how women are contributing to the fight against the disease.
According to the United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), 38 million people currently live with the HIV/AIDS condition. Worldwide, 14 million children are orphaned by AIDS, most between the ages of 10 and 15. Although it is home to only 10 percent of the world's population, Africa is worst hit—70 percent of the people infected with HIV worldwide live in the continent. The size and scope of the AIDS pandemic has mobilized a host of scientists, doctors and medical researchers in the effort to contain and control the spread of the disease. Yet most policy makers have failed to address that one of the most significant causes for the continued devastation wreaked by this disease is deep patterns of systemic and intense discrimination against women—their lack of voice, and the lack of real choices in their lives as a result of entrenched gender inequality and inequity.
How does the discrimination against women affect the spread of HIV/AIDS? In Southern Africa, a region where AIDS infects nearly every fifth person, there is a myth that to have sex with a virgin will cure you of AIDS. Women who staff rape crisis centers in Capetown, South Africa, as well as other organizations in Zimbabwe, Botswana, Malawi and Zambia, tell us of dreadful assaults on young girls—three-year-old girls, four-year-old girls, seven-year-old girls, nine-year-old girls. This violence against girls is creating an environment of deep insecurity for families and for entire societies. Women's lack of power—on even the most basic decisions affecting their lives and their bodily integrity—translates into a pattern of violence. It begins with the case of a nine-year-old raped by a grown man in order to cure himself of the HIV/AIDS virus, and is perpetuated against women throughout their lifetime on almost every continent. This violence takes the form of honor killings in the Middle East, dowry deaths in India, marital rape across Latin America, sexual assault and murder in the United States. As long as women lack control over their own lives it will not matter how many medicines researchers in pharmaceutical companies discover, or how many condoms are distributed.
Noleen Heyzer, director of UNIFEM (the UN Fund for Women) said the empowerment of women is the best vaccine we now have against AIDS. In the 17 years of the Global Fund for Women's experience of strengthening women's voices and expanding their choices, we have found this to be true. Women are not merely the hapless victims of HIV/AIDS—they are also potentially our greatest weapons against the disease.
One place where women's organizing efforts have led to success is in the country of Uganda. The Ugandan ABC (Abstinence, Be Faithful, Use Condoms) campaign has resulted in an impressive decrease in the rates of infection of AIDS/HIV among the general population in Uganda. Since the campaign launched in 1986, the HIV infection rate has dropped from 30 percent to about 6 percent. The Ugandan women were actively supported by their government as they used the strategy of abstinence as a negotiating tool with male partners whose infidelity put women at constant risk of sexually transmitted disease. Ugandan women's organizations encouraged their members to refuse to have sex with husbands and partners who were known to have multiple partners, wives in other villages or simply a roving eye. This was not some kind of moralistic or puritanical decree, but rather an incredibly powerful act of collective action for lasting social change. At the same time, there was a country-wide sex education campaign, spearheaded by grassroots women's organizations, that encouraged youth, women and men to speak honestly and frankly about issues of sex, power and sexual behavior.
The comprehensive approach that the women's organizations in Uganda displayed is what is needed throughout the African continent and beyond. That is why the Global Fund for Women's grantmaking strategy is to support women's groups such as the Mukono Women AIDS Task Force in Uganda, the Girl-Child Network in Zimbabwe, and the Karen HIV/AIDS Education Working Group in Thailand. While helping to protect their communities against AIDS, they also address the underlying factors that contribute to the devastation—poverty and hunger, ignorance and illiteracy, lack of education and pervasive violence against women. They put into action what we know to be true—winning the war on AIDS will require that we succeed in the battle to ensure women's rights worldwide. Ultimately, this is also part of a struggle to ensure security globally—something that must not be forgotten, even as the focus on the war on terrorism has prevented members of the world community from marshaling resources to win the fight against AIDS and other battles in critical arenas.
May 15, 2004
By Kavita Nandini Ramdas
President & CEO, Global Fund for Women
©2004 The Commonwealth