Gender and HIV/AIDS

Women's rights have never been at the top of the political gender in Asia-Pacific; one conference session discussed what this has meant for the spread of HIV.

What contributes to women and girls' increased vulnerability to HIV/AIDS, and what solutions exist? These were the questions examined by speakers from Pakistan, India, Cambodia, Iran and the UK during one working group session at the first Asia/Pacific Women, Girls and HIV/AIDS Best Practices Conference.

Gender discrimination is often entrenched in law and government policy in the developing countries of Asia and the Pacific, the session heard. This contributes to poverty and undermines women's position in society, ultimately exposing them to greater risk of HIV/AIDS.

Women in Asia and the Pacific are often unable to decide the nature and circumstances of their own sexual behaviour, and while sex outside marriage is widely practiced by men, women often do not have the latitude even to refuse or discuss sex, or insist on condom use by their partners.

During the session, Dr Suman Mehta from UNAIDS said women rarely have the right to decide who, or at what age, they will marry and have children. Women should be given "the chance to develop physically, [and] the chance to educate themselves and to empower themselves," said Dr Mehta.

Moreover, women in the region have few property rights and poor education levels, making them highly dependent on the male population. High incidences of poverty and minimal financial independence prevent women from seeking the sexual healthcare and support they need, while illiteracy makes educating them about HIV/AIDS highly problematic.

Some of the most effective approaches to assisting women were brought out in the discussion. One of the most effective in terms of independence was to provide women with skills in income generation, helping improve their decision making power in the household.

Working with significant "gatekeepers" to women's empowerment such as brothel owners, parents and so on, is another proven means of reducing women's vulnerability to HIV/AIDS. And, involving HIV positive women in advocacy ensures female voices and needs are heard at all levels.

Other suggestions included addressing poverty as an important cause of HIV vulnerability, provision of sexual health education in schools, co-operation with religious leaders and groups, reduction of discrimination and raising awareness of HIV-related health issues among sex workers.

Ken Bluestone, senior policy advisor for Voluntary Services Overseas - part of the UK government's development assistance programme - emphasised the role of men in creating and responding to the vulnerabilities of women and girls. Greater attention must be paid to men's motivations and attitudes when designing policies, he said. One means is to identify and publicise positive male role models, and to promote traditional male values to enhance men's understanding of the impact of their behaviour on others as well their sense of self-worth. He added that pre-emptive and supportive work with violent men can also be effective.

Despite institutionalised disempowerment of women in the region, examples of positive efforts to decrease their vulnerability to HIV/AIDS exist. Men are clearly as much a part of the solution as the problem. And provided HIV/AIDS programmes do not increase the burden on women in Asia-Pacific, continued efforts can help ensure they have a healthier future.

Ishdeep Kohli-CNS