(WOMENSENEWS)–Two weeks ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech that outlined a new course of action in the fight against HIV that sidelined women and reproductive health.
Have no doubt we will lose this fight if we follow the plan without considering the consequences.
Any complete, effective response to HIV is contingent upon woman-centered interventions and unfettered access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services. Women account for more than half of the world’s population living with HIV, and sexual intercourse is still the No. 1 mode of transmission. Increasingly, women are the face of this pandemic, and our sexual and reproductive health and rights are the crux.
Clinton’s "AIDS-free generation" theme was ambitious, along with her 2015 target date for ending vertical (mother-to-child) transmission. Her focus on evidence-based interventions was broadly welcomed, but anyone familiar with the demographics of the pandemic had reason to be disheartened. While references to women and gender inequality decorated her speech, nominal mention of gender-based violence and discrimination do not make a woman-centered policy.
On World AIDS Day, meant to raise collective awareness and concern about the pandemic, there’s no better time to focus on what Clinton should have emphasized, but didn’t.
- Female and male condoms: These are the only existing dual-protection methods that when used correctly and consistently protect against HIV and allow women to plan their families. They have to be part of every program to prevent and treat HIV and care for those infected.
- Integrating sexual and reproductive health services: HIV and reproductive health are inextricably linked; addressing them independently causes critical health gaps that fuel the pandemic. Women living with HIV may go untreated because their family planning provider does not test for HIV. Others may receive treatment at an HIV clinic, yet face stigma if they seek contraception or prenatal care because of widespread perceptions that women living with HIV should not have sex.
- Women’s rights: HIV thrives on gender inequalities that keep women from controlling our sexual activity. Women’s rights need to be recognized and respected if we are going to negotiate condom use, extract ourselves from abusive relationships, say no to unwanted sex, reject child marriage and combat rape.
Clinton instead identified three interventions as the new focal points of U.S. HIV policy: male circumcision, treatment as prevention and prevention of vertical transmission. Each intervention is critical, but without integrated reproductive health services and an emphasis on women’s rights, they are nowhere near enough.
‘Eventually’ Not Good Enough
Male circumcision is a one-time intervention that can decrease a man’s risk of contracting HIV during heterosexual sex from anywhere between 44 and 71 percent. Eventually, if fewer men contract HIV, fewer women will contract it as well. But "eventually" isn’t good enough, and a decreased risk of 71 percent at best isn’t good enough, either.
Women are the majority of this pandemic and we need our own protection now. Any and all male circumcision efforts need to be integrated with female and male condom programs, so women can initiate their own protection and men can understand that circumcision’s partial protection requires backup — and is not a license to go condom-free and have sex without consent.
"Treatment as prevention" is based on evidence showing that when people with HIV are receiving treatment, their viral load decreases. This lowers their risk of transmitting the virus to others. It’s essential, but it’s not enough. HIV was responsible for approximately 60,000 maternal deaths in 2009, and pregnancy alone can further compromise the immune system of a woman living with HIV. We must integrate voluntary family planning and other reproductive health interventions so women living with HIV can maintain their health.
Prevention of vertical transmission protects infants and is key, of course. But the first opportunity to prevent infections in children is preventing infections in women. And the second opportunity is to provide women living with HIV who don’t wish to have children access to contraception. In fact, prevention for women and voluntary family planning programs are two of the four core components of comprehensive vertical transmission prevention. Yet these critical components are not typically the focus of U.S.-funded programming.
And what about women who are not infected? What tools does the new course of action offer them? When did protecting women from infection in the first place become an afterthought?
Women Needed to Turn Tide
We cannot turn the tide against HIV without women. Women and our reproductive health compose the fulcrum on which the fight against HIV rests. As long as we treat the former as secondary and the latter as the plague, we are losing.
There’s no argument against that, but as we’ve seen this year, there is plenty of well-organized political opposition. Many members of Congress are still bent on defunding family planning programs in the U.S. and overseas and thereby trampling women’s access to contraception, maternal health care, cancer screenings and basic wellness exams. Some have expressed fervent opposition to any global AIDS money paying for contraception. As long as Congress insists on flooding the floor with these anti-woman, anti-reproductive health bills, the fight against HIV is a losing battle.
Clinton’s speech was the first in a series of speeches that administration officials will give before the July 2012 International AIDS Conference. There scientists, medical professionals, policymakers, advocates and persons living with HIV will gather in Washington, D.C., to decide on future action against HIV.
We have less than six months to decide if we’re going to fight HIV in a way that works, or let propaganda guide our policy.
This week, our organization, CHANGE, the Center for Health and Gender Equity, will deliver 2,000 postcards from concerned individuals around the world to the Obama administration, calling on decision-makers to put women at the center of U.S. global AIDS policy.
We have to start now.
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Serra Sippel is the president of the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) in Washington, D.C.