Women's Leadership Initiative

(WOMENSENEWS)–Women are quickly becoming the new face of AIDS in the regions hardest hit by the disease and may herald the future of AIDS worldwide.

In 2000, women comprised 50 percent of adults living with HIV worldwide for the first time since the pandemic began more than 20 years ago.

“If current trends continue we’ll see a larger percentage of women infected and affected,” said Sandra Thurman, president of the International AIDS trust, based in Washington, D.C. “Women have moved from the periphery of this epidemic to the heart of it in less than a decade,” she said.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan underscored that point last week, when he told a high-level meeting of the General Assembly on the disease that “one third of all countries still have no policies to ensure that women have access to prevention and care, even though women now account for 50 percent of those infected worldwide.”

To attack the problem, the International AIDS Trust’s Women’s Leadership Initiative, a powerful coalition of female world leaders–including Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and U.N. high commissioner for human rights, and Kathleen Cravero, deputy director of the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS–announced its formation last week in New York. Women’s rights, according to founders, will be the centerpiece of the initiative’s plan to curb HIV infections among women.

“Unless we address these fundamental gender issues, we won’t be able to do anything about the AIDS epidemic,” said Thurman.

“One of the principles of this global coalition is that women are not victims,” said Cravero. “We don’t just want to talk about the vulnerability of women. We also want to talk about their resilience.”

The coalition seeks to educate female leaders, activists, health care providers and the general public about how gender inequities raise women’s risk of HIV infection. The group will help coordinate and support the work of governments, nongovernmental organizations, media, activists, researchers and others so that the links between HIV infection rates and women’s rights will be adequately addressed.

Inequities Breed HIV Risks

The new coalition says women have a higher risk of contracting HIV due to inequities that women’s rights advocates have been battling for decades. These include limited education for girls, women’s inability to say no to sex or insist their partners wear a condom, the scarcity and cost of condoms and sexual health care for men and women, lack of sexual education for women, inequality of power within marriage and women’s limited economic opportunity.

Violence against women also plays a large role in increasing women’s vulnerability to infection, said Cravero, “Women who have experienced violence are 10 times as likely to be infected as women who have not.”

Taboos surrounding women’s purity and sexuality discourage open discussions of sexually transmitted diseases and the ways to prevent them. Uneducated women have little idea how HIV is transmitted or how transmission can be prevented.

“When I look at the trends in this epidemic, as horrible as it is, it is going to force us to look at these issues that we haven’t come so far on,” said Thurman.

Women infected with AIDS are often ostracized within their communities. Unmarried women are not supposed to be sexually active, preventing single women from seeking out information and condoms at clinics.

Married women are blamed for infecting their husband and children. Men who suspect that they have been exposed often conceal their infidelity from their wives until the wives are infected, said Hilary Fyfe, chair of the Family Life Movement of Zambia.

“Men deliberately allow their wives to be exposed, and then she gets infected,” Fyfe said. “They want the wife to be the one to blame.”

The stigma attached to women with HIV makes it difficult for women to openly go to clinics for testing and treatment. Many women may not know that they are infected making it less likely that they will seek care for themselves or pre-natal care that might reduce the risk of transmitting the infection to their children.

Last week, Botswana held a beauty pageant for women with HIV to try and combat stigma there. The winner, 31-year-old Kgalalelo Ntsepe, was crowned “Miss HIV Stigma Free.” Botswana has the world’s highest infection rate, with 38 percent of the population infected by the virus.

According to U.N. statistics, women are 55 percent of the adults infected with HIV in Northern Africa and the Middle East. In the Caribbean, women suffer 50 percent of all HIV infections.

In sub-Saharan Africa, 58 percent of those infected with HIV are women, a fact lamented by Annan in December 2002, when the statistics were announced. “As AIDS is eroding the health of Africa’s women,” said Annan, “it is eroding the skills, experience and networks that keep their families and communities going.”

AIDS Rising Outside Africa

While the focus has been on Africa’s AIDS epidemic, infections in women are rising in other regions.

On Sept. 16, the U.N. Development Fund for Women initiated a program on gender and HIV/AIDS in Kyrgyzstan, where it is believed that women comprise 55 percent of new infections and 27 percent of HIV infections overall in 2002.

The program–the first of its kind in central Asia–targets women’s inequity within marriage, the prevalence of domestic violence and rape and the traditional view that men have the “right” to have unprotected sex with their wives whenever they wish.

“Before, the problem of HIV/AIDS was addressed through the medical angle without counting the gender issues,” Nurgul Jamankulova, a consultant on gender issues for the United Nations Development Fund for Women, told the Integrated Regional Information Network, the U.N. humanitarian news agency. “However it is hardly possible to win an HIV/AIDS combat without reference to gender problems.”

In India, 4 million adults are infected with HIV and nearly 40 percent are women. India’s prevention campaigns, largely active in the cities and among sex workers, may not be enough to keep India’s epidemic from spreading to the rural population.

Already an epidemic once largely confined to sex workers and intravenous drug users has begun to affect India’s general population, with heterosexual sex becoming the most frequent means of transmission. Health policy workers note that rural men often look for work in cities, living away from their families for months and frequenting sex workers. When they return home, they bring the disease with them.

Aligning Similar Efforts

The Women’s Leadership Initiative will combine and coordinate the efforts of different organizations involved in women’s rights and the fight against AIDS, including the Ethical Globalization Initiative based in New York and directed by Mary Robinson; the Association of European Parliamentarians for Africa based in Amsterdam; the Center for Women’s Global Leadership in New Jersey; the International Committee of Women Living with HIV/AIDS in London; the Center for AIDS at the University of Pretoria and many others.

The initiative’s effort to coordinate a gender-based response to the AIDS epidemic mirrors a similar effort at the U.N., where the Global Coalition on Women and AIDS unites U.N. programs on AIDS and women’s rights. The Global Coalition’s seven-point plan of action includes preventing HIV infection among girls and young women, promoting “zero tolerance” of violence against women, protecting women’s inheritance rights, ensuring equal access to treatment, supporting community-based care, promoting access to new prevention options for women and supporting ongoing efforts toward universal education for girls.

The new initiative includes that coalition and will also help coordinate the efforts of legislators, nongovernmental organizations that work in women’s rights and reproductive health services, health care providers, female leaders and philanthropists.

Asjylyn Loder is a freelance writer in New York.

For more information:

United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS:

International AIDS Trust:

Ethical Globalization Initiative: