Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich

(WOMENSENEWS)–It’s July Fourth, the day to celebrate the fundamental principles of the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson and adopted by the American Colonies on this day in 1776.

Because the declaration’s meaning has been broadened over the years, today in the United States we are less uncomfortable with its most popular promise “. . . that all men are created equal.” After all, in 1920 when women won the right to vote, we figured that we pretty much had gotten past the “men” thing by enfranchising the other 50 percent of the population: women.

Women are still working on “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” however.

That being the case, there is no better time than today to consider the importance of what’s going on right now in Kenya.

At a historic meeting starting today in Nairobi, more than 1,500 women and their supporters are gathered for the first international meeting on HIV-AIDS and women. It’s appropriate that the first global conference on women and AIDS is taking place in Africa and is being co-sponsored by one of the largest and oldest women’s organizations in the world, the World Young Women’s Christian Association, the YWCA, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.

High Priority of World YWCA

“The AIDS pandemic, particularly as it affects women, is a high priority of the World YWCA,” says Dr. Lorraine Cole, CEO of the YWCA USA.

It should also be a focal point in our contemplations of Independence Day here in the United States.

The pandemic mounts a serious challenge to the assumption that all women in this country–particularly black women–are endowed with the inalienable right to life, much less liberty or the pursuit of happiness. “It is a shockingly under-reported fact that AIDS is the No. 1 killer of African American women between the ages of 25 and 34,” says Cole.

Fortunately, growing media coverage, which is just beginning to lift the lid off this disgrace, got a boost from presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton during last week’s presidential debate in Washington.

Clinton charged that “If HIV-AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country.” Her audience at historically black Howard University rose to their feet with a sustained roar of affirmation.

In the United States, conservative estimates indicate that about 200,000 women–mostly black and Hispanic–are infected, representing 20 percent of all persons with HIV-AIDS.

One-third of these women are more likely than men to die of the disease. Beyond the United States, millions more women have lost their lives or are living a death sentence because they have AIDS and because they are devalued and because they are non-white.

Many are physically dehumanized by chauvinistically repressive cultures, by the imperative of sex-for-survival from starvation and death, and by the conflict-driven conversion of rape into a war-torn weapon of mass destruction. Through these and other means women’s bodies–particularly on the African continent–are the vehicles for the deadliest forms of male dominance and supremacy.

Beaten, Trafficked, Prostituted

“Every day in every corner of the world,” says a Human Rights Watch report from last year, “women and girls are beaten in their homes, trafficked into forced prostitution, raped by soldiers and rebels in armed conflicts, sexually abused by their ‘caretakers,’ deprived of equal rights to property and other economic assets, assaulted for not conforming to gender norms and often left with no option but to trade sex for survival.”

Studies report that 54 percent of new HIV-AIDS infections occur in girls and young women and that 80 percent of these new infections result from sex with their husbands or primary partners. Large numbers of these women live in sub-Saharan Africa.

Evidence indicates that women especially at risk are those in heterosexual marriages or long-term unions in a society where men commonly engage in sex outside the union and women confront abuse if they insist on condom use.

“The relationship between abuses of women’s rights and their vulnerability to AIDS is acutely clear in Africa,” says the Human Rights Watch World Report 2006, “where 58 percent of those infected with HIV are women . . . In Kenya, simply because of their gender, many AIDS victims sink into poverty and will die even sooner because customs condone evicting women from their homes and taking their property upon their husbands’ death.”

These are the same promiscuous husbands by whom, very often, the women were infected with HIV-AIDS in the first place. They are the same husbands from whom, often, these women suffered abuse if they sought to protect themselves with prophylactic measures like condoms, or otherwise tried not to conform to the gender norms and local customs of their marriages.

Africa and Beyond

While Africa leads the world in HIV-AIDS incidents and deaths, many other regions are also in serious trouble.

Yale University’s AIDS Watch reports that the Latin American and Caribbean regions have the second highest rates of newly reported cases of HIV.

“No one can underestimate the challenge that the tragedy of HIV-AIDS puts before all countries,” says Kenya’s Nobel Laureate, Dr. Wangari Maathai. “Nowhere has the devastation been greater than in sub-Saharan Africa. Methods to alleviate the suffering and, hopefully, find a cure require our full commitment. For too long, discussing HIV-AIDS in our communities has been taboo. This must end. We must encourage free and full public debate on the threat. We must be frank about how the HIV virus spreads through unprotected sex or intravenous drug use, and how poverty and inequality between women and men are the major driving forces of the pandemic in Africa. We must also increase access to information, care and treatment. In this decisive and difficult struggle in Africa we need the critical encouragement, support and cooperation from the rest of world so that we win the battle.”

In a dialogue that I facilitated last year between Maathai and Dr. Dorothy I. Height, president emerita of the National Council of Negro Women, an international black women’s advocacy and service organization, both women stressed that the pandemic proportions of HIV-AIDS among African and African descendent women is a major challenge to the survival of the black family, in the United States, Africa and the Caribbean.

Since Maathai, Height and Cole plan to converge in Nairobi today, they will be strong voices advocating action, now. But they know that brutalities against women’s equality worldwide are a serious impediment.

Dr. Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich chairs Center for Community and Economic Justice Inc.’s Sojourner Truth Center for Interactive Justice, headquartered in St. Petersburg, Fla., and is a professor at the National Labor College in the Washington, D.C., area. Her newest book, “Sound Bytes of Protest,” is published this August.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].

Other Women’s eNews commentaries by Scruggs-Leftwich:

Oct 19, 2005 C. DeLores Tucker Led the Way for All Women
Aug 27, 2003 Women’s Groups Unite behind Moseley Braun in 2004
Aug 28, 2002 Court Nominee Shedd Is Hostile to Women’s Rights
Jan 30, 2002 King’s Dream of Economic Parity Eludes Black Women
Sep 19, 2001 Confronting Racism Would Enhance U.S. Security
Jul 04, 2001 Toward an Independence Day for All to Celebrate
Feb 28, 2001 Black Women Are Touching the Sky
Jan 15, 2001 Dr. Martin Luther King: ‘Give Us the Ballot’
Nov 15, 2000 Significance of Black Women’s Vote Ignored
Sep 27, 2000 Black, Latina Women Locked in Jailhouse, Poorhouse
Aug 24, 2000 Candidates: Don’t Underestimate Black Women