Women In The Forefront Of The Fight Against HIV/AIDS

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN-ESCAP) Inter governmental meeting on HIV/AIDS and Millennium Development Goals was held in Bangkok from 6th to 8th February, 2012. During the meeting, an event “The Gender Agenda: Making HIV Responses Work for Key Affected Women and Girls”, focusing on the female face of HIV was also held, during which women delegates spoke on the challenges and gaps in the existing programmes.

The aim of this session was to advocate for national and regional leadership and commitment for effective strategies and interventions for addressing HIV/AIDS related gender inequalities, with a focus on addressing the needs and rights of key affected women and girls for HIV prevention, treatment and care services. Diverse faces of HIV/AIDS, including the female and transgender faces of HIV/AIDS, were highlighted during the discussions. 

The session started with a documentary showing the voices of key affected women and girls: a woman who decides to abort due to lack of access to treatment for her and her child, a female sex worker who speaks about fear of policemen who will arrest them.

Dr Nafsiah Mboi, Secretary of the National AIDS Commission, Indonesia, said, "Women are not only infected by HIV, but they also get the blame for it from society. Through social media we want to change the social structure. We must realize that women are human beings, and they have a right to say no (to unprotected sex). Also a real man is one who is responsible (to use condoms) and is caring."

Gina Davis, Women of APN+ coordinator, appealed to involve and accommodate more women in the HIV programmes and to ensure that programmes aimed at increasing prevention and reducing stigma/discrimination go hand in hand. She was of the opinion that age appropriate information on HIV should be given to children at the earliest. She said, "I call on the governments present here today that we should scale up programme for women and girls. We should not forget about women and girls because we have so many issues. We want to be back in our community and live productive lives."

Jane Bruning, an APA member and Asia Pacific Delegate and coordinator of Positive Women, New Zealand, spoke about the links between HIV and violence against women, and shared her own experiences on how Gender Based Violence against women and girls at an early age has a huge impact on their lives and makes them more vulnerable to contract HIV/AIDS. She appealed for scale up of programmes like Stepping Stones, which was piloted in Fiji and deals with the impact of gender based violence on HIV. It is a comprehensive training package for life skills, and includes role plays for boys and girls together in order to create a more equitable balance of power in society. She declared, "Women have the right to control their own bodies, understand power relations and sexuality, and learn how to say no and yes in a sexual relationship.

Dr. Nipunporn Voramongkol, MD, Bureau of Health Promotion, Department of Health, Thailand, stressed upon the need to integrate Prevention of Parent to Child Transmission (PPTCT) and Maternal Health Services. She felt that, "Mother to child transmission is preventable. Therefore we have to keep the rate lower than 2% by having integrated and free services of PPTCT within maternal health service schemes."

Joana Qereqeratabua, an advocate for Fijian Network of HIV positive people, lamented about the stigma and discrimination which is still rampant in the field of HIV/AIDS,  preventing women to stand up for their rights.  However, she was happy to note that in Fiji more women, including herself, were now coming out openly against gender based violence and were advocating for HIV prevention. This indeed is a challenge, but women have to do it. Her message was: “Think of women. I am one of those faces".

The meeting succeed in enhancing clarity for delegates about why gender inequalities need to be addressed in National HIV responses, in order to achieve the goals and targets set in the 2011 Political Declaration. At the end of the day, there was an increased awareness regarding the transformative effect of successful and effective government policies on citizens’ lives and contribution to national and international HIV/AIDS related goals and targets. It is hoped that governments will invest more in women's leadership and community capacity building, so that there is increased meaningful participation of key affected women and girls in all programmes aimed at reaching the target of zero new infections, zero deaths and zero stigma discrimination in HIV/AIDS.

Shobha Shukla - CNS
(The author is the Managing Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS). She is a J2J Fellow of National Press Foundation (NPF) USA. She has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP and taught physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. She also co-authored a book (translated in three languages) "Voices from the field on childhood pneumonia" and a report on Hepatitis C and HIV treatment access issues in 2011. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org, website: http://www.citizen-news.org)